There is nothing more likely to put you off your breakfast than waltzing into the ship’s self-service early one morning to see three crew dressed head to toe in protective clothing swabbing tables, chairs and carpets.
No one would tell me what had happened but I had a good idea.
Norovirus. Whisper the word, because it’s the one thing no one wants to talk about on ships as it could upset not just your tummy but also your cruise.
Known as the winter vomiting bug (although it can strike any time of year), norovirus causes projectile vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches and stomach cramps, and spreads like wildfire if given half a chance.
It’s dubbed a “cruise ship illness” because it makes the headlines when it breaks out on a ship, as it did at the end of last week.
Some 277 passengers and crew on Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis of the Seas – one of the world’s largest cruise ships – were struck down by norovirus while sailing the Caribbean. The cruise was cut short, passengers received a full refund and the crew set about deep-cleaning the ship before the next passengers arrived.
But to be very clear: the bug is just as prevalent in schools, retirement homes and hospitals – in fact anywhere with a lot of people in a confined space.
The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) said statistics show the risk of getting norovirus on land is one in 15. On a ship it’s one in 5,500.
Those are pretty good odds but bugs in hospitals are nowhere near as sensational as those on cruise ships.
The timing of the outbreak on Oasis was very unfortunate given just five days earlier the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the incidence of norovirus on ships had halved in 2018 vs the previous year.
Can norovirus be stopped?
In a word, no. But cruise lines do their level best to prevent it. During the safety drills held before sailing, everyone is urged to wash hands often and use the sanitising gels provided before entering restaurants. P&O Cruises offers extra advice on a video on the in-cabin TV channels.
On one Holland America Line cruise, no one was allowed to serve themselves in the buffet for two days after embarkation. Once they were sure no one was showing signs of illness, normal service was resumed.
Crew are constantly cleaning surfaces and handrails (on Cruise & Maritime Voyages’ ships, one crew member is assigned to each stairwell and spends all day every day cleaning the banisters from top to bottom).
Several lines have outlawed shaking hands with officers at the captain’s welcome party. After all, the one person you really don’t want to get norovirus is the captain. He did on one river cruise I was on, along with about a dozen passengers.
I think we have a Code Red
That’s the not-so-secret secret term that indicates an infectious disease is on board and the ship is in lockdown. All meals in the buffet will now be served, doors to the public toilets will be left open so no one has to touch the handles, the library will be closed and the crew roped in to a non-stop cleaning and disinfecting regime.
Anyone diagnosed with the virus or feeling unwell will be requested to stay in their cabin. Meals will be delivered, but more important is to drink as much water as possible to avoid dehydration.
The good news is that most people get better within three days.
How do I avoid catching norovirus? The NHS says good hygiene will lower your risk, but admits there are “no guarantees” you will not get ill.
If there is a outbreak, step up the hand washing regime. It should be top of the hygiene list anyway – especially after using the toilet, before eating and when coming back on board after an excursion – but a few more washes won’t go amiss
There are a few other dos:
- Use the bathroom in your cabin wherever possible. If you do use the public facilities, open doors with the tissues provided.
- Avoid touching banisters (keep a tissue handy to use if it’s a bit rocky).
- Use a knuckle to call lifts rather than touching the buttons with your fingers. Better still, use the stairs.
And a few don’ts:
- Don’t think hand sanitisers are an alternative to soap and water. They are an added precaution but they don’t fight the noro bug, according to the CDC.
- Don’t shake hands with anyone, not even the captain. On Azamara Cruise Club the officers “fist-bump” passengers. Frankly, a friendly hello is far better.
- Is there an element of paranoia here? For sure. But if they keep the bug at bay, surely that’s no bad thing.