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Are Cruises Hazardous?

Dangers of Cruise Ships

Cruising proponents tout the absolute relaxation onboard, the gorgeous ocean vistas, the fun of visiting many ports, and perhaps most of all, the meals. Where else but on a cruise can you eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner plus drink as much as you can manage day after day with nary a dish to wash nor morsel to prepare? The luxury of it all apparently seduces many into forgetting the calorie count. A study by a New York nutritionist found that people on cruises eat far more than at home — up to 4000 calories a day without blinking. In fact, the average cruise passenger packs on five pounds in a seven-day stint at sea.

But that’s not what this blog is about, because there’s another more acute danger posed by cruises. With a thousand or so people packed into confined, shared spaces, eating the same food, diseases have an ideal breeding ground. And so, the news periodically reports on a cruise that went awry when nearly everyone onboard got ill.

The latest bad news cruise was on a Celebrity line boat roaming the Caribbean islands, when an outbreak of norovirus — a contagious bug that causes acute intestinal distress — put a damper on the fun. Apparently, 420 of the 1,800 passengers (more than 20 percent) and 27 crew members experienced stomach aches, vomiting, and diarrhea. And this was the third time in a row that this particular boat, the Mercury, set off on a cruise only to turn around when passengers experienced mass illness on board. To remedy the situation, Celebrity scrubbed the boat for three days straight. The magic apparently worked, because a fourth cruise made it back to port without problem.

More than 100 disease outbreaks have occurred on ships since 1970, and that number no doubt underestimates the real number because many outbreaks don’t get reported or even noticed. Passengers claim that when they came down with a stomach illness, they watched the medical crew record it as mere “motion sickness,” pointing to one way that stomach issues get underreported. But according to the World Health Organization, it’s not norovirus that’s the biggest pain in the gut — it’s contaminated cuisine and beverages.

“Most of the detected gastrointestinal disease outbreaks were associated with cruise ships and were linked to food or water consumed onboard ship,” says a WHO report. “Factors contributing to outbreaks included contaminated bunkered water, inadequate disinfection of potable water, potable water contaminated by sewage on ship [yuck], poor design and construction of potable water storage tanks, deficiencies in food handling, preparation, and cooking, and use of seawater in the galley.”

Although intestinal problems are the biggest complaint, outbreaks of other types of illnesses, including Legionnaires’Disease and several types of influenza, have ruined vacations for numerous passengers in recent years. To address the issue, the CDC has instituted a Vessel Sanitation Program. Among other things, it requires all ships to file a report when more than three percent of the passengers and crew get sick. The program does seem to be having an impact: only 13 outbreaks of disease were reported on US cruise ships in 2009, way down from 34 in 2006.

Most people who cruise each year manage to enjoy the experience with little more to worry about than the expanding waistline syndrome or getting sick. But getting sick while on a cruise is only half the problem! During a five-month period from April to August 2007, cruise ships reported 207 serious “incidents” to the FBI. These incidents included missing people presumed overboard, robberies, and sexual assaults. In fact, sexual assault is the most common crime reported on cruise ships. Of even greater concern is the increase in incidents of piracy. According to the International Maritime Bureau, piracy on the sea has tripled in the past 10 years, with more than 100 incidents reported in 2003 and 145 people killed, assaulted, kidnapped or reported missing in the first three months of that year. Most piracy occurs in the waters around Indonesia and on cargo ships, so the average cruise passenger has little to worry about in that regard, but still, it does add a pinch of excitement to the cruise knowing it’s remotely possible…no pun intended.

In fact, trouble is possible enough that the cruise industry spent $2.9 million on federal lobbying during a year-and-a-half period, raising concerns that the industry may not present the full picture of cruising dangers to the public. But the reality is that you’re probably going to enjoy your cruise without much to complain about other than warm beer and the annoying tourists seated at your table. Over 10 million Americans cruise annually and only a few thousand, at most, get sick or robbed. Unless you’re especially unlucky, the biggest danger, really, is the possibility that you’ll succumb to gluttony and suffer the health consequences.