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Going cruising? Don’t let Norwalk ruin what could be a fantastic vacation

03.dec.03, Stacey Smith, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

03.dec.03, Stacey Smith, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
I survived a trip aboard the Carnival Triumph Cruise ship last month without
a single bought of nausea. No Norwalk for this traveller, let alone a brush
with seasickness. Our choice of ships turned out to be a fortunate one.
Exactly one week after the return of my ship, Carnival Legend arrived back
in Fort Lauderdale on November 29/03 with what the U.S Centers for Disease
Control suspects was a highly contagious Norwalk-type virus. This was
Legend’s second consecutive trip through the southern Caribbean in which
passengers fell ill. On this latest voyage, the Associated Press reported
that 73 of the 2378 passengers and four of the 913 crew members aboard had
been affected by the stomach illness.
Judging by the number of happy passengers aboard my ship, Norwalk seemed
to be the last thing on their minds. As our Mexican tour guide in Cozumel
stated, “if you’re worried about the drinking water, step up to the bar
and have a shot of tequila first, guaranteed to kill any bugs you might pick
up.” And most travelers appeared to be doing just that, regardless of any
unproven illness-fighting properties in the alcohol. In Jamaica, the shot
of 151 proof rum I shared with a handful of other tourists could clear out
your sinuses and put hair on your chest, but protect against Norwalk? I took
my chances anyways.
On board, I didn’t see anyone carrying around bottles of hand sanitizer or
wipes, although my mother and I were both prepared. Passengers served
themselves hungrily at the extensive buffet tables. Used glasses and used
water bottles pressed against the lever for refills of iced tea, lemonade
and water. There was no notice in our cabin advising us on how to protect
against the stomach illness, and I didn’t see hand washing reminders in the
public washrooms. No staff I conversed with even mentioned Norwalk.
Both on and off the ship, passenger behaviour was oblivious to the risk of
Norwalk or the fact that flu season had arrived. Long before the sip of
rum, our River Tubing Safari tour group shared a passion fruit. The
Jamaican host cut it open and offered us all a try. Without a proper hand
washing station in sight, we greedily dug in with our fingers and passed it
around. Some went back in for seconds, but I wasn’t one of them. Then
during lunch one day, I witnessed an older man use, what I can only assume
was the fork he was eating with, to unplug a glass ketchup bottle. While
I’ve been assured that the pH of ketchup is acidic enough to kill bacteria
and viruses, I couldn’t eat ketchup the rest of the week.
Despite the close quarters within the ships and the continued carelessness
of passengers, cruises this year have not been plagued with the same numbers
of vomit-ridden voyages as was experienced in 2002. Throughout November and
December last year, the cruise lines of Disney, Holland America, P&O and
Carnival all made headlines. Passengers and crew alike were experiencing
the very rapid and violent onset of gastroenteritis caused by the family of
viruses most commonly referred to as noroviruses. Only one other ship this
year has reported a similar outbreak after more than 500 aboard Britain’s
Aurora became ill. The virus was the reason for the boat not being allowed
to dock in Piraeus, Greece, and Spain closing its boarder to Gibraltar after
the ship docked at the island.
Have ships modified their practices to better protect against the spread of
Norwalk? Connie Woodcock investigated this very issue last fall and
reported her findings in a Toronto Sun story on November 17th. During her
trip on Holland America’s MS Amsterdam, the ship that comprised the majority
of media accounts last year, Woodcock noted that a number of precautions had
been taken, including salt and pepper shakers removed from
dining room tables, staff wearing gloves to serve buffet food, no hand
shaking at the Captain’s Cocktail Party, drained hot tubs and children’s
pool, hand sanitation wipes available at the Internet café, and
plastic gloves made available to Casino gamblers.
Such precautions were not evident on my cruise trip, not that they would
have been terribly effective against the virus anyways. Numerous affected
cruise ships last year were scrubbed and disinfected following Norwalk
outbreaks only to return after the following voyage with more sick
passengers. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel has now reported that sick
passengers from the November 21st trip are blaming Carnival for not
adequately cleaning the ship after the initial outbreak on the November 13th
voyage and then not providing clear instruction on how to reduce the risk of
becoming infected. They are looking for adequate compensation for their
ruined vacation.
Tim Gallagher, spokesman for Carnival stated that refunds for Norwalk are
not in the company’s policy. He believes the virus originates with people
arriving on the ship but sympathized that the illness is not the passengers’
or ship’s fault. While this is true, both the cruise line and passengers
must take responsibility for limiting the spread of the virus. For
Carnival, this should include thoroughly cleaning infected ships, informing
passengers on the virus and how to protect themselves, and then
making public what the company is doing to protect them. Passengers about
to go on a cruise who suspect they may becoming ill should inform ship staff
and be compensated by the company to take a trip at a later date instead.
Does Norwalk still worry me? Sure, no one likes to be sick when they’re on
vacation or any other time. And despite the publicity, I’ll be taking more
cruises in the future. Traveling is a service-oriented business that
depends heavily on personal relations and word-of-mouth. Carnival and other
cruise lines must realize that the public is capable of managing risk, but
they must first be provided with the proper information so they can make
appropriate choices.
Stacey Smith is a graduate researcher with the Food Safety Network at the
University of Guelph.