Illness Outbreaks On Cruise Ships


Cruise lines have a bad reputation for spreading illness. News outlets love the story of guests who have their vacation ruined because they’ve been isolated while on vacation. But are cruise ships really that bad? And how do cruise lines stop illnesses from starting and spreading?

Sickness Statistics

Recently travel website Travel Weekly reported on cruise line illnesses. They found that 2018 was the best year for illnesses on board in 16 years! In fact, 2018 saw only half the reported cases we saw in 2017. This is a huge accomplishment, but can we really rely on these figures?

Because of the risk of outbreaks, cruise ships are closely monitored by the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC). There are strict requirements to report illness on board, particularly gastrointestinal outbreaks – often the Norovirus that features in the headlines!

By working with the CDC, cruise lines can quickly identify outbreaks not only on their ships, but also on other ships they may dock in ports with. These reports also mean that the figures from the CDC are an accurate reflection of how the cruise industry is performing.

Outbreak Prevention

Stopping any illness before it gets a hold on board is key to keeping a healthy ship. There are a few ways we do this –

  • Pre-Boarding Questionnaires – by asking a few simple questions, we can target those guests and crew who may be ill for a quick checkup with our medical team. Hopefully, they give you the all clear and your vacation continues as usual!
  • Hand Sanitiser – you’ll see every ship providing gels, liquids or wipes at the gangway. These are a simple way to kill germs on your hands, in addition to regular hand washing. You’ll also find them at restaurants, and often outside bathrooms too.
  • Food Service – many ships have slightly different food service processes at the start of a cruise. This might mean that you can’t take food yourself from the buffet, but that you’ll be served each item. These precautions reduce the number of points that guests and crew contact, helping prevent germs being passed around.

In addition to these simple steps you might notice, the crew on cruise ships have already worked hard to make sure your ship is clean and healthy before you board. As our previous guests end their cruise and disembark, we start to restock the ship for the next cruise – and the mission to refresh every stateroom begins. Clean sheets and towels are provided, surfaces are wiped down with anti-viral cleaner and bathrooms are scrubbed to the shining standard you’d expect.

This cleaning doesn’t stop with staterooms either! The entire ship gets the same refresh, so we can be sure that illness won’t be passed from one voyage to the next.

Isolated Illnesses

It is normal to have one or two guests fall ill. Often people embark the ship carrying something from home, from flying or a hotel. Thankfully, we have a fully equipped medical center on board, including doctors and nurses. They are on call 24/7 to address your medical concerns. However, they can only help if they know you need it!

It’s important that if you do experience symptoms of gastrointestinal illness you call right away. Vomiting, diarrhoea, fevers, cramps – all signs that something’s not quite right. This first consultation with the on-call nurse is often free, as cruise lines try and encourage guests to report illness and get help. If you need further medical treatment, medications etc. this may be charged to your account and/or insurance.

Because these viral illnesses are so contagious, you’ll likely be isolated. This does interrupt your vacation, but it’s to give you the best chance to recover and more importantly to stop the illness spreading! Most people will feel better after 24 hours, and the medical team will return you to your vacation as soon as they can be sure you won’t make others ill.

Outbreak Response

Daily records give an early indication that more guests or crew are falling ill. When this happens, the entire ship pulls together! We need to stop the spread as quickly as possible, and return the ship to normal.

Doing this means cleaning and sanitising constantly. The entire ship including hand rails, elevators, tables, chairs, telephones… Everything guests and crew touch will be wiped down with anti-viral solutions constantly.

Our food service will change, especially in the buffet areas. Guests and crew will no longer be able to serve themselves – each item will be passed to them by crew members to prevent cross-contamination. As more people are isolated, the demand for in-room dining will increase so our room service teams will feel the pressure.

Unfortunately, as all this adds to our crew members work, we will likely have fewer crew members to handle it. Just like ill guests, crew members showing symptoms will also be isolated. This means their team has to pick up their duties in order to keep the ship running. You can see why we try so hard to stop outbreaks early!

Staying Healthy On Board

All cruise ship crew members want is for our guests to have the best vacation possible. There are some precautions you can take to help make sure this happens –

  1. Wash your hands! This simple advice is often forgotten by guests. Crew members know this is the best way to prevent picking up or spreading germs. Soap and hot water, followed by hand sanitiser and you’ll be healthy your whole vacation.
  2. Use the tongs! You’ll see these lined up along the buffet for everything from bread rolls to cookies, fruit to desserts. Our crew swap out the tongs regularly so they can be washed and sanitised, and they play a big role in making sure the food you eat is healthy.
  3. Call us! If you’re feeling unwell, we want to help. Housekeeping can provide fresh towels and bedding. Medical can provide consultation and medication to get you back on your feet. Room service can bring water, crackers and green apples for sea sickness. And we can keep track of contagious guests to help keep everyone healthy.
  4. Take out travel insurance! Good travel insurance can help take the pressure off if you fall ill shortly before your vacation, and help with medical bills etc. during your vacation. Often the most comprehensive insurance is that provided by your cruise line. However, if you choose your own insurer pay attention to what your policy covers.

So that’s the story off illness on cruise ships. Yes, it happens – we’re carrying thousands of people in a fairly small space for days or weeks. We’re welcoming new guests and crew all the time from all over the world, who have often travelled on trains, buses and planes to get to the ship.

Due to the diligence and hard work of crew members, and guests who take sensible precautions to stay healthy, the chance of falling ill is tiny. Just remember that there’s a lot you can do to keep yourself healthy!

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