Norovirus is a common and contagious illness that can affect people on cruise ships as well as on land. This article includes statistics about the prevalence of norovirus on cruise ships, as well as giving helpful information about how to avoid catching it.
What is norovirus?
Norovirus is a contagious virus which causes gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Whilst symptoms can be extremely unpleasant, it is usually short-lived, lasting one or two days.
What causes norovirus on cruise ships?
Norovirus is caught by having contact with an infected person, either directly, or by touching contaminated surfaces. Norovirus outbreaks can occur on cruise ships when people bring the virus on to the ship and pass it on to others.
Cases of norovirus on cruise ships are reported more commonly than on land because cruise ship passengers are required to report cases to the ship’s medical team. On land, most people recover at home without seeking medical help.
This has resulted in norovirus being incorrectly called ‘the cruise ship disease’.
How common is norovirus on cruise ships?
Whilst cruise ships have a bad reputation for norovirus contamination, norovirus is, in fact, common anywhere where people are contained – such as offices, schools, hospitals and hotels. It is not any more common on cruise ships than in any of these places.
Read on for all the latest statistics about cruise ship norovirus.
Cruise ship norovirus statistics
What are the chances of getting norovirus on a cruise?
Between 2018 and 2014, 74 million cruise passengers sailed out of US ports. 12,968 of those passengers reported norovirus infections. According to these statistics, the chance of catching norovirus on a cruise is 0.018%. (Source)
The worst cruise ships for norovirus
The CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program records outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness on cruise ships.
In 2020, the cruise ships most affected by norovirus were:
- Grandeur of the Seas
- Caribbean Princess
Of course, any cruise ship can have an outbreak of norovirus on board, just as any school, hospital or hotel can. These statistics don’t mean that these ships are any less hygienic than ships which have not reported an outbreak.
It’s also important to note that CDC statistics only related to cruises which call at US ports. So cruises Europe and elsewhere in the world won’t be included in these reports.
The worst norovirus outbreak on a cruise ship
The worst outbreak of norovirus on a cruise ship occurred onboard Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas in January 2014. On this 10-night cruise, 534 out of 3071 (20.6%) passengers or crew reported being ill. (Source)
How to avoid norovirus on cruise ships
Here are four tips for avoiding norovirus on cruise ships.
1. Wash your hands
The most effective way to prevent norovirus on a cruise is with regular and thorough handwashing. It is particularly important that you do this after using the bathroom and before and after eating, drinking or smoking.
The most effective way to clean your hands is to wet them with water, apply liquid soap, lather, rinse and dry.
When I was on board a cruise ship during a norovirus outbreak, this flyer about the correct handwashing procedure was distributed to all passengers on their cabins.
2. Use hand sanitiser
Alcohol hand gels are not as effective as soap and water, but they are useful at times when soap and water isn’t available.
There will be hand sanitiser available at stations all over the ship, but it’s also a good idea to carry your own. To avoid having to rummage in your bag, hand sanitiser bracelets are an excellent option.
See hand santiser bracelets on Amazon.com (if you’re in the US)
See hand sanitiser bracelets on Amazon.co.uk (if you’re in the UK)
3. Avoid touching surfaces
Your freshly-washed hands are only clean until you touch something, so you should avoid touching surfaces that are regularly touched by other people.
It’s important that you turn off taps and open bathroom doors using a paper towel to keep your freshly-washed hands clean.
You should also avoid touching elevator buttons with your fingers, and instead use a knuckle or elbow.
Only touch staircase railings if you need to do so for stability. If you’re unsure, you can hover your hand above the railing, so that it’s there if you need to grab it.
4. Avoid shaking hands
Shaking hands with other cruisers is something you should avoid. This is particularly important at mealtimes, as this is when it’s easy to transfer any virus from your hands to your mouth.
In 2020, shaking hands is not as common as it used to be, and declining a handshake is not something that should cause embarrassment.
What does the cruise line do when there’s norovirus on a ship?
When norovirus is reported on a cruise ship, the staff will put measures in places to stop the spread of the virus.
For 2020 cruises and beyond, some of these measures are likely to be in place at all times anyway.
Measures to control norovirus outbreaks include:
- Advising passengers that others are experiencing symptoms of gastrointestinal illness and giving information about what everyone can do to prevent it from spreading
- Regularly sanitising every area of the ship with a powerful disinfectant called Virox
- Assigning extra staff to monitor entrances of eating areas to ensure that every passenger washes their hands
- Removing items such as salt and pepper shakers and butter dishes from tables and replacing them with individual sachets
- Stopping the use of self-service drinks machines and instead having staff dispense drinks for guests
- Serving guests at buffets rather than allowing self-service
If these measures are not successful in halting the spread of the diseases, in rare cases, it is possible for all passengers to be confined to certain areas of the ship, or to their cabins, or even for the cruise to end early.
What does CODE RED mean on a cruise ship?
Cruise ship staff use secret codes to avoid causing alarm. If you hear CODE RED, it means that there is a serious outbreak of illness on the ship. For a less severe outbreak, you may hear CODE YELLOW.
The exact number of cases needed for each alert level varies by cruise ship. It may be a certain number of cases or a certain percentage of passengers and crew on the ship.
What do you do if you catch norovirus on a cruise
1. Report it
As soon as you become unwell, it’s vital that you return to your cabin and call reception to report it.
They will advise you about what to do next and arrange a phone call with one of the ship’s nurses who can give you medical advice. The medical team will phone regularly to check how you are feeling.
2. Isolate yourself
You must stay in your cabin until 24 hours after any vomiting or diarrhoea has stopped.
Your cabin will be regularly sanitised by specially-trained crew members. If you require any additional housekeeping, you can call reception and someone will be with you quickly. You can also have any items of clothing cleaned free of charge if needed.
3. Rest and recover
Whilst quarantined in your cabin, you can order from room service free of charge. There is a specially planned menu to assist with recovery which includes bland items such as toast, porridge, soup, sandwiches, grilled chicken breast, salad and chips. Your meals will be served with on disposable plates.
As you are not permitted to leave the ship during the isolation period, if you have booked shore excursions with the cruise line, the cost of these will be refunded to you.
If you have booked excursions independently, you may be able to cancel them if you give 24 hours’ notice. If you are unable to do this, you may be able to claim on your travel insurance, depending on the policy details.
Suggested read: Do you need cruise travel insurance?