Cruise lines must clearly do more than sanitizing if they do not wish to see their business go down the pan, argues MAC’s UK Correspondent Bill Redmond as he gets up close and personal with norovirus.
After two years of declining fortunes typified by slashed prices, cruise lines see better times ahead with rising bookings and prices but will the smallest of organisms, the Norovirus, scupper the nascent revival?
The cruise lines badly timed their expansion plans when laying down orders for new ships several years ago, which came on stream just when global credit markets imploded. The situation, however, would have been very much worse if it were not for the growing British love affair with cruises. The Passenger Shipping Association, for example, shows that more than 1.5 million people took a cruise last year, up 4% on 2008 and nearly 50% since 2005.
It is not hard to see why such growth occurred when recession hit other travel markets badly. Cruising is one of the most pleasant ways to spend a relaxing holiday, offering many new sites and entertainment more competitively priced than most land-based holidays. But what land-based holidays do not normally have is the Norovirus, which sadly has reached almost epidemic levels on many cruise ships.
This vomiting virus has the power to cripple the cruise industry and even, on occasions, endanger the running of the ships if sufficient crew members go down with the bug at the same time. On more than one occasion cruises have had to be cut short for just such safety reasons. But many passengers who have experienced the bug have said that they would not cruise again. This is understandable because the bug can ruin a cruise. Although the vomiting itself only lasts for 1-2 days, passengers are normally ordered to remain in their cabins for another 3 days until they have been given the all clear by the ships’ doctors. Being mewed up in a small cabin for 5 days is like serving a costly prison sentence.
So far it seems that the media and cruise lines have tended to blame infected passengers for bringing the virus on board. This may be so on some occasions but there is far more to it than that. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, person to person transmission of Norovirus has been well documented but the virus is transmitted by the faecal-oral route by contaminated water and food. Water, says the FDA, is one of the most likely causes of the virus and that must include water stored on cruise ships. This raises concerns about where potable water is taken on board and why, it seems, there is never a mention of whether the water was tested and what the results of the tests were.
Food supplies can also sicken passengers. The FDA reportedly says that shellfish and salad ingredients are foods most often implicated in the Norovirus. This suggests that increased cleaning everywhere on infected ships and frequent hand washing with spirit lotions will be inadequate.
This writer’s own cruise ship experiences bears that out. On taking a 24-day cruise last November on Fred Olsen’s Balmoral, I had been warned that there might be departure delays caused by sanitizing the ship owing to a serious outbreak on the preceding cruise. Such cleaning, however, did not stop the almost immediate outbreak of the virus on my cruise which lasted most of the voyage. The Celebrity’s Mercury cruise ship may be another case in point. On two of its most recent cruises alone around 600 passengers fell ill but does that seriously suggest 600 people failed to wash their hands?
Cruise lines must clearly do more than sanitizing if they do not wish to see their fortunes impaired by class action lawsuits and a waning interest in cruise ships turned bug boats. One travel law specialist, Irwin Mitchell, already has over 80 angry customers of Fred Olsen Cruise Lines following 5 separate outbreaks over the last few months on Boudicca. The Centre for Diseases Control in America reports numerous outbreaks of Norovirus on cruise ships operated by Celebrity Cruises, Cunard, Holland-Amerika Lines and Royal Caribbean. If left unchecked there will be an avalanche of claims against the lines. Now is not the time to imperil a major industry with billions of pounds committed to splendid new ships like the recently launched Azura and Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas (225,000 tonnes) simply because health and safety issues remain sloppy or inadequate.
To give just one example, this writer has viewed many cruise ships in ports and all failed to have all their rat baffles (guards) in place. Such baffles may no longer be a legal requirement, except where there is serious rat infestation or plague, but their lack of use is symptomatic of the sloppy procedures undermining passenger health and safety.
Almost 40% of Norovirus outbreaks are linked to food service settings
Foods linked to Norovirus outbreaks:
Norovirus is stable on human hands for at least two hours