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Norovirus – The Cruise Ship Stowaway

Posted in Norovirus,Outbreaks & Recalls on July 5, 2018

Food poisoning and cruise ships. Cruise ships and food poisoning. The two go together like tropical cocktails and little paper umbrellas. They’re two sides of the same coin; put a couple hundred people together in a little box floating on the ocean for several days, and it’s inevitable that they exchange germs with one another. There’s ample documentation of food poisoning horror stories from cruises – stories of guests vomiting in pools, running down the halls with their mouths covered, getting sick by the dozens when a pathogen is making the rounds (norovirus is a particularly prolific offender).

Here’s our guide to making sure that you don’t get sick, and what to do if you do.

  • Wash your hands: This isn’t revolutionary advice, but it’s very important. The single best thing that you can do to avoid food poisoning is wash your hands. Use soap and hot water, scrub thoroughly for 30 seconds, and don’t forget the spaces between your fingers or the back of your hands. Wash thoroughly, and wash often. Wash your hands before you have a meal. Wash your hands after you use the bathroom. Wash your hands after touching railings, door knobs, or anything else that has likely been in contact with many of the ship’s guests. Wash your hands after interacting with children. Wash your hands when it occurs to you and you don’t have a particular reason to do it. Most cruise ships are wise to the high risk of food poisoning and will post reminders throughout the ship reminding guests of the importance of hygiene. Heed that advice.
  • Carry hand sanitizer with you: Washing your hands works well, but it requires you to have access to soap and a sink. You can protect yourself against pathogens by carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer on your person and using it to disinfect your hands on the fly. This is especially useful if you’ve been spending time in common areas of the ship, shaking hands with guests who may or may not have been sick, or doing other activities that expose you to surfaces or objects that have been in contact with many guests. Most cruise ships will have hand sanitizer dispensers in areas where food is being served. Similarly, there should be sanitary napkin dispensers in these areas or in the bathrooms. Use them liberally. If you’re traveling with your family, encourage them to do the same.
  • Use your own restroom: Given that I’ve advised you to wash your hands and disinfect with hand sanitizer, which should you do? Is it necessary to double up and do both? Probably not. A good rule of thumb for when to wash your hands and when to use hand sanitizer is to wash your hands when you have access to your own restroom and to use hand sanitizer when you don’t. Public restrooms are a crossroads for the many different kinds of germs that can be found on a given cruise ship. Their surfaces are breeding grounds for pathogens from various different passengers, so your chances of contracting a stomach bug that you picked up in the restroom are not insignificant. The restroom attached to your cabin still has germs, but a good share of them are part of your body’s microbiota, which means that they’re less likely to make you sick than the microbial commons of the counter of a public restroom. Because of this, it’s a good idea to use your own restroom rather than public ones when you can.
  • Be smart about what you eat: Avoid common culprits for foodborne illness, like raw oysters and sprouts. Be careful with buffets; sneeze guards and other safety measures do little to protect food from pathogens. You’re better off with sit down options, or one where you order and are served quickly – if you’re ordering from a restaurant, the chances that your food has been exposed to germs from a sick guest are significantly lower. If possible, try not to eat during peak hours, as service workers are more likely to cut corners or compromise food safety measures when they’re under the pressure of a lunchtime or dinner rush. If you’re on a cruise that passes through a developing nation, your stomach probably isn’t ready for food from markets, small vendors, and onshore eateries that haven’t been explicitly sanctioned by the cruise line. Make sure the food you eat is hot and thoroughly cooked. Avoid fruit that can’t be eaten without first removing the skin.
  • Don’t share your food with other guests: This isn’t meant as a rebuke to the generous and the extroverted amongst us. It’s just best practice while you’re confined to a vessel with several hundred other people. Try to avoid sharing food or drinks with other guests. This rule is doubly important if that guest complains of food poisoning symptoms or mentions that they’ve interacted with someone who’s sick. Don’t share utensils, and be careful if you’re touching a serving spoon at a buffet – handle it with a napkin, avoid touching your face afterwards, and bust out that handy bottle of hand sanitizer before you eat.
  • Do the right thing if you do get sick: In the event that your safety measures fail and you do end up getting food poisoning on a cruise ship, the first thing you should do is contact the ship’s medical staff. They can provide you with medical care and advice. They will also tell you what you can do to avoid getting other people sick; there’s a chance that you’ll be placed under quarantine. It isn’t fun, but neither is a widespread outbreak of 3000 people on a boat. Remember to drink lots of fluids and get plenty of rest. It’s especially important to drink water if your symptoms include diarrhea or vomiting, which can quickly dehydrate you. Avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol, as they’ll only contribute to your dehydration.

 We at MakeFoodSafe wish you a fun-filled, safe cruise, free of food poisoning and quarantine.


By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)