How Clean is Your Cruise Ship?

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When the Celebrity Mercury set sail from Charleston, South Carolina, on March 21 it was probably the cleanest ship at sea. That's because after three sailings in February and March saw about 1,000 passengers come down with the notorious -- and nasty -- norovirus, the Center for Disease Control ordered the Mercury be taken out of service for a four-day thorough decontamination to disinfect it from top to bottom.This may sound extreme, but the reality is that nine sailings, including the three on the Mercury, have had suspected outbreaks in the first three months of 2010 as compared to 15 illness-plagued sailings in 2009.

It's no shock that these ships are magnets for norovirus outbreaks. They occur most often in environments where people live day-to-day in close proximity sharing facilities. You know, like being on a cruise together. It's primarily spread through person-to-person contact and can also be caught from fixtures such as handrails, doorknobs, and elevator buttons. On average the incubation of the virus is 36 hours, and symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea, mild fever, unusual fatigue, stomach cramps, headache) usually last one to two days. There is no way to treat the virus besides staying hydrated and letting it run its course, though the ship's doctor can prescribe medications to treat specific symptoms.

As a long-time cruiser who has sailed on more than 100 ships, I've seen first-hand how unsettling a norovirus incident can be. Fortunately in my experience it was a mild incident affecting only five people and the ill passengers were immediately quarantined to their cabins, but it still affected everyone on the ship. The usual breakfast and lunch buffets were cordoned off and food was instead delivered by the staff directly to our table. Between announcements over the public address system for activities, the captain kept us informed about the progress in treating the outbreak. He eventually gave the all-clear and everything thankfully returned to normal after just a couple days.

So how do you protect yourself and keep that dream cruise from becoming a nightmare? The CDC runs a Vessel Sanitation Program that monitors cruise ships that carry more than 13 passengers through surprise inspections. Think how the health department monitors restaurants, but besides just the kitchen and dining room the VSP checks to see if the hot tubs are hot enough, if the decks are being properly cleaned, and if the plumbing is up to code. Before you book, search their database for specific ships or entire cruise lines to see how they have scored (anything less than an 85 out of 100 points is unsatisfactory) and read the full report. They also have a handy (if a bit terrifying) list of all ships that have had illness outbreaks since 1994. But be aware that things can change at any moment. The Mercury scored a respectable 94 when it was inspected in October 2009 -- just four months before the first major onboard outbreak.

It may sound like common sense, but the best way to stay healthy once you are on your cruise is to wash your hands often with soap and warm water, especially before you do things like eat or brush your teeth. The CDC also recommends washing your hands after touching those high-traffic doorknobs, railings, and elevator buttons. Most cruise lines have also installed dispensers of hand sanitizer throughout their ships for easy access. So keep it clean and it should be smooth sailing.
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