The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently issued new information about the cause of norovirus, indicating that a leading cause of the nasty virus is infected food handlers who work while sick and don’t regularly wash their hands.

The study and conclusions are of course directly relevant to cruise ship norovirus cases considering that cruise ships are in essence giant floating restaurants.

But the new CDC report tried to be kind to the cruise industry, stating that you are far more likely to Cruise Ship Noroviruscatch the noro bug in a restaurant than on a cruise ship. The CDC says that cruise ships account for 1 percent of reported norovirus cases, while the other 99 percent of the other cases occur on land. 

A comment to a NPR article "Norovirus: Far More Likely To Come From Restaurant Than Cruise Ship," says that this is misleading. If the average individual who goes on a cruise spends an average of one week a year on a cruise, then 51 out of 52 weeks a year they are not on a cruise. So to state that over a year’s time they are more likely to catch this illness when they are not on a cruise is an underwhelming statement by itself." 

The CDC on line information indicates that for cruise ships calling on U.S. ports alone, there have been 47 norovirus outbreaks since January 2011. If you consider that the average population of the cruise ship industry is just 250,000 or so at any one given time, the cruise ship fleet would be one of the sickest locations in the world considering that each outbreak involves at least 100 to 250 people. Earlier this year, some 700 Royal Caribbean passengers fell ill with norovirus.

Considering that there are over 300,000,000 U.S. citizens ashore, there undoubtedly are far more people getting sick with noro from restaurants ashore than on a cruise ship. But getting sick at home has got to be a heck of a lot better than power-puking in a tiny little bathroom in a tiny little cabin on a ship with hundreds of others puking around you on the high seas.

As far as norovirus cases attributable to contaminated food, the CDC points the finger directly at ill cooks and waiters. The CDC reports that restaurant workers account for 70% of norovirus cases involving contaminated food. The CDC says:

  • 1 in 5 food service workers report working while sick with vomiting and diarrhea. Fear of job loss and leaving coworkers short staffed were significant factors in their decision.
  • Food service workers practice proper hand washing only 1 of 4 times. 

The CDC suggests that one way to deal with the problem is "requiring sick food workers to stay home, and considering use of paid sick leave and on-call staffing, to support compliance." A CDC spokesperson say that "we really need to call upon the food service industry to work with public health to help foster an environment where food handlers can stay home when they’re sick."

Of course this is impossible on a cruise ship where galley workers live on the ship and have cabin mates who live in close quarters.

Many of the food workers on cruise ships, like waiters and assistant waiters, earn a basic salary of only $50 a month and depend on tips from the customers. Missing a week because they are sick with noro would result in significant loss of money for these cruise waiters and assistants. Many galley workers keep working while sick.

There is also a dynamic on cruise ships that it you are sick, the attitude of the managers and supervisors is "go home" (i.e., quit, you will be easily replaced). The CDC has previously documented many cases of cruise employees working in the galley who work while ill. 

The cruise lines always blame the passengers for not washing their hands, but the culprit seems to lies elsewhere. The new CDC report clearly indicates that eating food in a restaurant, whether on a cruise ship or not, with a sick galley crew that doesn’t wash their hands is a more likely way to get sick.

  • Astrogal

    We sailed on the Oasis of the Seas’ May 10th sailing. The last day I checked the paperwork they had put in for the next sailing’s guests and there was a letter from the cruise stating that some guests on the previous sailing (ours) had experienced norovirus and extra hygiene precautions had been taken. We weren’t told anything, however it may explain why a few rooms down from us there was a young couple kept in quarantine with a guard posted outside their stateroom that wouldn’t let them out.

  • Andy Smithers

    The 70% figure does not surprise me in the least! All restaurant workers generally are less likely to have sick pay, health insurance and vacation time. Just came off a cruise and I hate the attitude the Captain takes when telling people why sickness is rampant on cruise ships. Bottom line is that he needs to start in the kitchen. One thing I did notice that was done in the MDR that caused me some concern. The wait staff reused presentation plates for appetizer and soups that were serve at the table. For example i was served a shrimp cocktail in a goblet. When they took it from the table they cleared those plates to one stack and reused them at will during the whole dinner service across all the tables in that service area. To me that screams a possible vector for illness. Remainder of the cruise i refused presentation plates for the remainder of the cruise. I had to protect myself.

  • gl greene

    Just goes to show… Everybody spins the news. There is not a single person on this planet that is immune from spinning the news. And the worst part is we all think our spin is the absolute truth. My spin…I have gotten sick (with those symptoms) on land at least 6 times as an adult that I can remember; never on a cruise ship. But to minimize the risk, I might stop eating at restaurants AND taking cruises. Stay home… it is a dangerous world out there. On a related note…why doesn’t the law that requires ships to report outbreaks also apply to restaurants? Seems like that would be in the public interest.

  • Craig Pavlus

    More unannounced VSP ship inspections are needed. Two inspections a year are not adequate.

  • eddie dollar

    The passenger bring a lot of these viruses on when they boards the ship and your comment about salaries are wrong. Mr walker I don’t think u know anything about life on a cruise ship!!

  • Thomas McKinley

    The CDC stated the leading source of the illness is food handlers — but this is not the only source. The report stated that 99% of cases are on land, so even if 100% of cruise ship outbreak sources were from ‘viral terrorists’ sprinkling pure noro on the food, it would not make a dent in the overall source statistics. Unless we can parse the CDC data and filter only for cruise ship cases, it would be hasty to jump to any conclusions about 1% of total cases being directly matched to overall statistics. Having been on quite a few cruises now, I have discussed this issue with a number of crew (both restaurant and misc service, various cruise lines, various countries of origin) – they have sick time and have little tolerance for working while ill BECAUSE there is such a scare of illnesses on cruise ships. To put that another way, workers are encouraged and/or forced time off when they appear ill, generally with NO affect to pay (if not for extended periods), due to the PR fear that a worker that appears ill will scare off customers or potentially cause an outbreak. So go ahead, Mr Walker, I encourage you to keep the fear alive, that keeps the cruise lines too scared of losing customers to put sick ones on the serving lines. 😉