Why Do People
Get Sick on Cruises?

Blame it on the Novovirus, which you've probably encountered before

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Why It Happens and How to Avoid It

Why do we sometimes hear so much about sick cruise ships, where people become so ill they have to be airlifted home?

What are the chances of it happening to you?

Do cruise ships really get sick?  

No, not even when hundreds of passengers report to the infirmary with the same symptoms does it mean the ship is "infected." The culprit is usually a Novovirus often called the "cruise ship virus."

Actually these are a group of related viruses, referred to as "Norwalk-like viruses" or NLV, causing acute gastroenteritis in humans.
The incubation period is usually between 24 and 48 hours although cases have been reported to occur within 12 hours of exposure.  

Symptoms are vomiting, diarrhea with abdominal cramps and nausea generally lasting 24 to 60 hours. Dehydration is the most common complication.

Yet even during the worst, most publicized outbreaks of sick ship only a small percentage of passengers are usually affected.  

According to Princess Cruises, "Statistics have shown that the chance of contracting Novovirus on land is 1 in 12; and 1 in 4000 on a cruise ship."

You've probably had it before

Even though it's termed "the cruise ship virus" you're most likely to contract a Novovirus on land. And it's something you've already experienced before.

Some 60 to 80 percent of Novovirus outbreaks occur in schools, nursing homes, hospitals--all places where large groups of people interact.  

Another cruise crasher is influenza or the common flu.  This type of infection is frequent among all travelers, especially frequent flyers. Yet this is one of the most common vaccine-preventable travel diseases.

Be smart and get the annual influenza vaccination (flu shot) whether you plan to travel or not.

Foreign invasion

Cruise travel brings people together from not only North America but all over the world.  

Just because it isn't flu season where you live doesn't take into account what's going on health-wise where your dining partners come from.

Air travel itself creates its own problems with re-circulated air and people from everywhere coming in and out of airports.

I personally developed walking pneumonia after a flight from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland and there wasn't any doubt where I contracted the illness. It was on the airplane, thanks to all the coughing and sneezing of my fellow passengers.

So, some travelers can unknowingly carry "bugs" aboard ship.

But some people do know they're sick when they arrive at the cruise terminal and never say anything.  Maybe they're afraid of the financial loss or being denied boarding or being confined to their cabin.

If you know you are ill before starting the cruise, use your travel cancellation insurance and stay home. Would you rather be sick at home with access to your regular physicians or be confined to your stateroom with limited medical assistance?

gastrointestinal outbreaks and respiratory illnesses can create a ship-wide epidemic.

Cruise lines don't like the possibility gastrointestinal outbreaks or respiratory illnesses that might create ship-wide problems. Some have started imposing stricter boarding policies to deny passengers who are obviously ill. Some cruise lines also are making people sign forms stating they are in perfect health before boarding.

Helping prevent an outbreak

Most cruise ships do not allow passengers to serve themselves in the buffet restaurant for the first 3 days of a cruise. That is due to the normal incubation period for the Novo virus.

You can reduce your chances of contracting a disease by doing the following:

1) Wash your hands if you touched a stair railing before eating. Although the cruise lines clean these often, if you come along after someone who is ill and run your hand on the railing after them, you are at risk.

2) Use the hand sanitizers that are stationed at the gangways and outside dining rooms and other parts of the ship.

To CDC Record of Disease Outbreaks on International Ships

To CDC Advice for Cruise Travel

To CDC Sanitation Rating Ship by Ship

To Caribbean Cruises Homepage