NOROVIRUS: Not A “Cruise Ship” Disease

This might come as a bit of surprise, given the history of reporting on this rather stomach-turning subject, but of all the public places where people tend to gather in large numbers one of the places where you are least likely to contract the much talked-about “norovirus” is aboard a cruise ship.

Big headlines and breathless TV reporting in recent years might cause you to think that cruise ship passengers are in elevated danger of contracting a nasty “bug” like norovirus, but the reality is quite different. Indeed, if you want to lead your life in such a way as to never come down with a case of norovirus, you could do worse than to take up permanent residence onboard a cruise ship. And you almost certainly would never go into restaurant or a banquet facility, or attend a catered event. You’d also want to avoid hospitals and other healthcare facilities, schools and even your kids’ daycare.

Oh, and you wouldn’t go to work either… or home.

That’s because you’re more likely to pick up norovirus in all of those places than you are aboard a modern cruise ship. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s data is irrefutable. Each year there are 19 million to 21 million reported cases of norovirus-caused illnesses in the United States. Between 56,000 and 71,000 Americans are hospitalized each year because of norovirus. Between 570 and 800 people die in the U.S. as a result of norovirus. Yet the CDC recently concluded that well less than 1 % of all U.S. cases of norovirus are contracted on cruise ships sailing to or from U.S. ports.

Startlingly 64% of all U.S. reported cases of norovirus are contracted at/via restaurants, and another 17% stem from banquet facilities and catered events. Hospitals and other healthcare facilities including nursing homes and rehab centers are responsible for about 1% of cases. Schools and daycares are responsible for another 1%. That leaves just 13% for the CDC’s “Other” category, within which offices and other types of workplaces (excluding on-site cafeterias) are, by far, the primary contact point for norovirus transmission.

That’s not to say that you will never get sick – from anything, including norovirus – while on a cruise. It does happen. Any place where large numbers of people gather can be a point of disease transmission. But based on the news coverage of the issue in the last few years, you’ll be shocked to learn how infrequently that really happens to cruise passengers.

Of the 11 million or so passengers who embarked on cruise ships from U.S. ports in 2013 only 817 came down with a case of norovirus. Expressed mathematically that 817 out of 21 million norovirus victims looks like this .00389%. Put another way, you have a 1-in 15,000 chance of getting norovirus on a cruise, vs. a 1-in-15 chance of getting it anywhere on land.

Okay, nobody’s perfect, but 10,999,183 of our industry’s U.S.-embarked passengers DID NOT come down with norovirus last year. That’s not to minimize the ill effects felt by the 817 of our industry’s passenger who did, but the facts don’t justify those big headlines and breathless TV reports (or heightened consumer concern).

So why do stories about cruise ship-related cases of norovirus get reported that way?

It’s because our industry, like no other I know of, voluntarily reports all illnesses contracted by our customers. The Cruise Line Industry Association’s voluntary health standards oblige us to have fully-trained and well-equipped health facilities onboard our ships, and to adhere to strict cleanliness and health protection protocols and procedures for our cabins and public areas, for our food preparation and service areas, and for out potable and waste water and other life support systems. And we report every illness or injury – something no other hospitality and travel industry segment does. We do that because we know that our passengers pay sizeable amounts of money to enjoy the fantastic culinary, cabin and entertainment delights aboard our ships. Neither they nor we want their much-needed and well-deserved vacation spoiled by illness.

You see, we don’t just sell cruises. We sell experiences; the kind that turn into life-long memories; that make hard work rewarding; and the kind that bring strangers together, friends closer, and lovers and families closer than ever before. So we go to great lengths to prevent illnesses from robbing our guests of the experiences they seek whenever they come aboard.

Experiences create memories.

…Josh Leibowitz

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