The accounts of the gastrointestinal outbreak on the P&O Pacific Eden portrayed in today's Daily Mail are disgusting: overflowing toilets on a dirty ship with barfing, sick kids. Ill passengers, who paid handsomely for a family cruise vacation over Christmas, complain that not only did their complaints fall on the deaf ears of surly cruise staff members but the cruise captain blamed them for the outbreak in the first place.
Long ago, the cruise industry elected a "blame the passenger" public relations strategy whenever a ship become infected with norovirus. When an outbreak takes place due to contaminated food, the cruise lines accuse the passengers of not washing their hands and ignoring the "washy, washy" instructions of the cruise hostesses stationed at the entrance to the dining room who spray sanitizers (which are worthless against norovirus) on the passenger's hands.
Admittedly, the cruise lines face a PR headache when norovirus breaks out on the high seas. Invariably, the cruise industry faces sensational news accounts from online newspapers that blast cruise-from-hell headlines which include references to "floating petri dishes." The cruise lines seemingly feel compelled to respond to the media with the same old, worn-out blame-the-passenger game.
Travel agents and travel publications perpetuate the cruise industry's talking points. Just today Travel Agent Central covered the recent outbreak of an gastrointestinal illness on the Holland America Line Veendam by writing this whopper: "most cases of norovirus are brought onboard by guests." There is absolutely no empirical evidence of this. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration concluded that norovirus is primarily caused by contaminated food or water.
But the last thing that the cruise industry ever wants to admit is that there is a problem with food poisoning on their fleet of ships, or that a cook or food handler, like a waiter who works primarily on tips, worked after exhibiting signs of a gastrointestinal illness and infected the paying guests.
Determining the causative source of an outbreak is the business of an epidemiologist, but have you ever heard of the CDC ever coming to a scientific determination that the cause of a cruise ship outbreak was traced back to a salad which contained contaminated bean sprouts eaten by 100 passengers? Of course not. The CDC does not have the time or inclination to perform such an analysis during the short turn-around in port when the ships quickly re-rack with thousands of other passengers and head out to sea without a firm understanding of the scientific nature of the disease that just sickened its passengers. The lost revenue of a "sick ship," shut down for a comprehensive epidemiological analysis, far exceeds any legal claims contemplated by sick passengers.
Can you imagine Chipotle, with its recent norovirus and e-coli outbreaks, blaming its customers like the cruise industry does? Instead, Chipotle has already recognized and admitted that it is facing a "food safety" issue. It immediately began to work on an enhanced food safety program. It retained an independent laboratory to reassess its food safety practices that included a "farm-to-fork assessment of each ingredient we use with an eye toward establishing the highest standards for safety.” It also is considering whether the outbreaks are caused by "food poisoning" or "bad employee hand washing."
The cruise industry, on the other hand, has chosen to focus on short term PR efforts. The only enhancements it engages in are "enhanced cleanings" of its infected ships where everything is sprayed down by crew members, some not even wearing protective suits, in a couple of hours. It's an impossible task to enlist already overworked crew members to eradicate the billions and billions of noro microbes which are puked in every nook and cranny of the bathroom and into the fabrics of the carpets, couches and blankets in hundreds of cabins in just a few hours. The cruise industry has never dedicated itself to getting to the root of the noro problem which may well point to it's ships which are always on the go or its sick crew members as the primary source of the problem.
After all, this is the same industry where the exclusive Silversea Cruises brand duped USPH inspectors and hid food in crew member cabins. Butt the real surprise came when I asked crew members on Facebook: Do cruise lines hide pots & pans, galley equipment and food from USPH inspectors? Of the first 100 crew members who answered the poll (admittedly unscientific), around 90% said yes, cruise lines routinely hide galley items from inspectors. One crew member said: "There will be more equipment in the crew cabin during the inspection then in the galley that's for sure!!!"
That's not to say that sick passengers are never the cause of an outbreak. Sometimes passengers don't admit that they are ill and lie on the pre-cruise medical questionnaires. This becomes a real problem when the cruise lines refuse to permit passengers to re-book their cruises when they become ill. And some passengers refuse to report ill to the ship infirmary to avoid the exorbitant shipboard medical bills that follow their arrival. There is no doubt that that shipwide contamination can become worse and the virus can spread via passengers when they refuse to be confined to their cabins.
So yes, passengers are not immune from blame. But every single time there is an breakout, the cruise lines blame the passengers! The blame is automatic and often leveled against the passengers even before it is possible for the CDC to even test the nature of the disease and notwithstanding the fact that the ship may have experienced outbreaks during prior cruises.
One of the books written by cruise expert Professor Ross Klein, "Cruise Ship Squeeze," addresses this issue. Professor Klein has been recognized as an expert regarding cruise line issues by both the House of Representatives and the Senate before whom he has testified several times. In chapter 8 of Dr. Klein's book, at pages 179 - 183, he discusses Princess Cruises always blaming the passengers. A dozen years ago during a 2003 cruise, passengers were stricken with a gastrointestinal illness. Princess accused their guests sick with norovirus of "bringing it with them." But the truth is that during the prior cruise, the cruise ship had experienced passengers sickened with the same sickness. No scientists arrived at this conclusion. And there was nothing remotely scientific about what Princess represented to the public.
Ever since then, Princess says the same thing over and over every time norovirus sickens its guests.
Who needs epidemiologists when the cruise line PR teams and their friends in travel publications have already figured out what to say?
Photo Credit: "Pacific Eden, Fremantle, 2015" by Bahnfrend licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons / Wikipedia.
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