Photo: Sparkling clean galley on Emerald Princess, Copyright © 2007 Paul Motter
For the record, Norovirus is not unique to cruise ships at all, and the likelihood of contracting Norovirus on cruises has been greatly exagerated by reporters who just can't find the correct statistics. The truth is the percentage of Norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships is between .05% and .06% of all outbreaks -- and that's in a bad year.
Roughly one cruiser in every 2000 will get Norovirus. Putting that into perspective, counting the last 2000 times you ate a meal outside of your home, let's assume you got "stomach flu" symptoms once. Would the word "epidemic" even occur to you?
The cruise industry is uniquely tainted with this negative association because CDC requires only cruise ships to report outbreaks. The closed environment gives the CDC a chance to study the virus and the cruise industry was given no choice in the matter. Still, proudly seeking out the leading edge of public health procedures the cruise lines have learned to adapt and given the Center much of the information they need.
On my just completed Emerald Princess cruise I witnessed new onboard procedures which, I believe, if used as a model for public facilities everywhere could lessen the spread of public disease dramatically. For example, on Emerald Princess all restrooms are fully equipped with touch-free facilities. The water and even the soap dispensers are infrared proximity activated, detecting the presence of the user. This is the first soap dispenser of such design I have ever seen. Towel dispensers also have electric eyes, so you don't touch anything but the towels, and toilets flush automatically. Finally, the doors are set so you can walk through without touching the handle.
The ship also has sanitizer gel dispensers at the beginning of every buffet line, and a person posted to insist that everyone use them. However, studies have shown such gels are not as effective on Norovirus as simple hand washing. So, on a personal note, I have taken the CDC's advice and taken up the recommended method of public hand cleansing; twenty seconds of intense scrubbing with soap followed by a thorough drying on a clean, disposable hand towel.
I am proud to report four vacations in a row without a single sign of illness. Ask yourself how frequently you get sick during or immediately after traveling. My guess is that many people get sick as often as 50% of the time. I know I used to get a fever pretty often, and my wife was down for at least two days on two of the last three trips we have taken (both were clearly airport contamination).
But the recommended hand-washing method has changed things for me along with another weapon in germ warfare I have adopted - carrying the "Personal Antimicrobial Hand Wipes" known as P.A.W.S. from safetec.com. These wipes kill 99.99% of germs including Norovirus, Hepatitis, Avian Flu and even HIV. They also remove debris and soil from hands and under fingernails, an important function in the absence of soap and water. A box of 1000 wipes costs just $5.99.
I hope the CDC has gained something by putting the cruise industry in such an embarassing position (making them the only travel entity required to report illness outbreaks which are truly far more common in other institutions), but I must say that as far as I am concerned, the drastic measures the cruise lines have innovated to stop outbreaks before they start have proven to be successful.
A courtesy "thank you" note from the CDC to Cruise Line Industry Association would be a nice touch.
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