Last night the Caribbean Princess cruise ship returned early to Houston, Texas with passengers and crew members suffering from a gastrointestinal illness (GI) outbreak. There are around 173 people officially reported to be ill on the ship, mostly passengers. A Houston news station says the outbreak was caused by norovirus.
Determining the type of GI outbreak and the origin of the outbreak is a deliberate, scientific process that is the work of trained and experienced expert epidemiologists.
The experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have not yet determined either the type or the origin of the virus. The outbreak could be attributed to contaminated food, or contaminated water, or galley or food handlers working while ill, or the ship failing to clean up after the last cruise when passengers became ill, or new passengers with the virus who were not properly screened. But whatever the potential cause and origin, it's important to determine what the CDC says about the outbreak.
Princess Cruises, however, has already blamed its guests. Princess PR spokeswoman Julie Benson tells CBS News that "the pattern suggests the illness was brought on board by passengers." Ms. Benson is not an epidemiologist of course. She has no medical or scientific education or training. Princess Cruises didn't fly a team of epidemiologists into the Gulf of Mexico and lower them down from a helicopter to the cruise ship to conduct tests and make a analysis.
Ms. Benson's comments, in my assessment, are a PR stunt. This is right out of the cruise industry's playbook of how to manage a crisis when a cruise ship sickness epidemic breaks out. Rule number 1: Blame the Passengers!
Cruise lines like Princess don't want the public to think that their cruise ships or crew members are the problem. To divert attention from the possibility of bad food or contaminated water or sick crew members, the cruise lines point the finger at their customers and accuse them of bring the virus aboard or having poor hygiene.
But could it be bad hygiene of the crew? The CDC has found crew working while ill before. That's why the public has to rely on the education and experience of the experts and not PR cruise line people.
Yesterday we wrote that there were passengers sickened during the last cruise. Did the ship clean up the contaminated surfaces and test the food and water after the last puke fest? How many people were sick last week? Perhaps Princess will tell us? Perhaps not.
I have mentioned before that cruise lines often don't want the CDC to make any conclusions about the cause or origin of widespread viral outbreaks. Why? So the PR people can spin the story for marketing purposes.
Princess would rather protect their own reputation and blame the sick passengers than wait for the CDC to finish its investigation.
Photo BCredit: Mayra Beltran/Houston Chronicle