Norovirus: What's the Cruise Industry's Priority? Public Relations or Passenger Health?

BBC News has an article about a gastrointestinal virus outbreak sickening passengers aboard a Fred Olsen cruise ship this week.

Last week we reported on the Fred Olsen Black Watch cruise ship (what a dreadful name) which was nicknamed the "Black Death" by norovirus infected passengers who have suffered through three consecutive sailings aboard what some people are also calling the "plague ship."

Around 10% of Black Watch passengers have been infected over the last month.

Fred Olsen Boudicca Cruise Ship - NorovirusBBC News says that the Boudicca is the latest Fred Olsen ship to become sick. The cruise line confirms there has been an outbreak of what the cruise line is saying is a "a gastroenteritis-type illness" on board the cruise ship which left Belfast last week. That means that the cruise line doesn't know exactly what type of sickness it is.

Is it norovirus or a e-coli outbreak? Fred Olsen doesn't seem to know.

This is not the first outbreak this year on the Boudicca this year. Read: Our Plague Ship Diary: After Ten Days on Cruise Hit by Norovirus, Two Friends Present the Holiday Snaps from Hell

What caused the latest outbreak? Contaminated food or water?  Sick crew members?  Fred Olsen is not saying if it knows. Usually the cruise lines are quick to blame everything but the cruise ship and its crew. The "dirty handed passengers" of the nasty passengers are usually blamed. 

What we know from the BBC is that at least 72 Boudicca passengers out of the 760 or so passengers are ill. That's around 9%, which is many times the percentage of sick passengers which the Centers for Disease Control requires to be reported in the U.S. 

The cruise line says that the cruise ship will return to Belfast tomorrow where the ship will be cleaned and sanitized. The ship will then quickly head off on a 12-night cruise to Madeira and the Canaries. 

Cruise lines like Fred Olsen tout that "the health, safety and well-being of all our guests and crew is paramount." But is this true?

A responsible company would make the best effort to find out exactly what type of illness affected the passengers, such as testing the food and/or determining whether food handlers were sick and not properly quarantined (a problem recently noted by health inspectors during U.S. CDC Vessel Sanitation Program inspections).

Right now there are over 70 Boudicca passengers spewing vomit and spraying diarrhea in their cabins and bathrooms. (Watch Vomiting Larry) Many millions of infected particles of some type of virus are covering the floors, carpets, bed covers, and nooks and crannies of these cabins. Yes, the cabins will be cleaned thoroughly (we hope) but will a few dozen infected particles linger to greet a new round of passengers? Its takes just 20 particles or so to get sick.

The new passengers, of course, are not told whether their cabins were the scene of a puke-and-diarrhea-fest just hours before they arrived.

It seems like an impossible task for the poor cabin attendants pressed into action for such a short period of time to try and kill off all of the noro or e-coli in the cabins after such intense purging of the stomach and bowels of the sick people. But what if the culprit is in the food from the galley?  There is no way that the cruise ship will find out in the limited time when the sick disembark the ship and the healthy arrive. There's not enough time to slow down and take an extra couple of days to let the epidemiologists perform their job of finding the causative viral or bacterial agent and determining how it came aboard the ship.    

Instead, we hear cruise lines telling the new passengers: "Trust us. Your health is our highest concern."

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Dr Roger Cartwright - October 5, 2013 7:00 AM

Black Watch is the name of a proud Scottish regiment of the British Army. The Black Watch battle group has aided the US army recently at the express request of the latter. To brand the name as dreadful is highly insulting and you really should apologise to us in Scotland for mocking our heritage

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