A cruise may be a holiday, but if even one person – crew or passenger – has a gastrointestinal disease or any contagious illnesses, all hell can break loose. It is hard to keep track of passenger hygiene and cleanliness. Cruise ship crew, however, can be called upon to be more diligent.
Gastrointestinal disease affects the digestive system, causing cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. It is debilitating to say the least and highly contagious. The reason why gastrointestinal diseases – such as e. coli and in particular norovirus – easily turn into epidemics on cruise ships is because there are thousands of people confined to a relatively small space.
These illnesses occur when people carrying the bug contaminate commonly used items such as door knobs, fridge handles, railings, etc. Fecal matter and vomit particles are quickly transferred this way from person to person, and can soon affect many. Most recently, large cruise ship companies, such as P&O Cruises and Celebrity Cruises, have experienced norovirus outbreaks on board.
The easiest way to avoid contracting a gastrointestinal disease on cruise ships is to wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. It is important to do so before and after you eat a meal, and – as a cruise ship chef – before and after you handle food in the kitchen. Any other staff also handling food, such as wait staff, should also wash their hands frequently and thoroughly.
Hands should also be washed if you have gone out to port, touched railings and other commonly used items, used the toilet, shaken hands with a stranger, handled money, etc.
When it comes to passengers, the quickest course of action cruise ships can take when handling a potential outbreak is to quarantine all those who report symptoms of gastrointestinal illnesses and shut down the buffet. The latter is the area where germs spread very easily – other than public toilets.
Passengers touch everything from the serving spoons to the drinking water fountains so it is difficult to keep the virus contained. Far worse is serving food that might be contaminated, thereby infecting many more people in a shorter span of time. Until the source of the contamination is discovered, cruise ship companies keep buffets off limits.
Gastrointestinal diseases spread quickly, so reporting is paramount to nipping it in the bud. Passengers are typically required to fill in a form upon embarking which details whether they were unwell during the few weeks before boarding the ship. If so, they are sent to the ship’s doctor and ascertained whether a quarantine of a day or two is required to avoid any possible disease from spreading.
Crew including cruise ship chefs are required to report to their supervisor at the slightest hint of illness. Medical officers can then trace the cause of the illness and management can take the crew member off duty until he or she can be cleared for work.
Regulatory bodies also play a huge role in containing the incidence of gastrointestinal disease. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US has a Vessel Sanitation Program that grades any ship touching its ports.
Vessels are inspected twice a year and the visits are unannounced. The agency trawls through all areas of the ship, checking everything from medical logs, potable water systems, swimming pools and whirlpool spas, to galleys and dining rooms, child activity centres, cabins, ventilation systems and other common areas. The ship must get a score of 86 or above of 100 to pass the inspection.