Recorded outbreaks of gastrointestinal illnesses have been reported aboard 12 cruises so far in 2023, already surpassing the total number of outbreaks in 2019, the last year of full data available. Does this mean that cruises have become unhealthier or at higher risk for such outbreaks?
12 Outbreaks in Less Than 5 Months
Only five months into 2023, a dozen outbreaks of gastrointestinal illnesses aboard cruise ships have been reported to the Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This is more than the 10 total outbreaks reported for all of 2019, and also more than the full year’s reporting in 2018 and 2017. The 2016 total was 13 reported outbreaks, while in 2015, 12 outbreaks were reported.
To date, vessels from Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, and P&O Cruises have all reported outbreaks. A total of 11 cruise ships have been involved, with Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas reporting two outbreaks on two successive sailings – the March 11 and March 23 cruises.
Outbreaks have been reported in every month of the year thus far, with the most recent incidents reported aboard Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Summit during the current sailing, a 10-night Bermuda cruise roundtrip from Charleston, and the latest sailing of Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam, a 14-night roundtrip Great Alaskan Explorer cruise from Vancouver.
Aboard Celebrity Summit, a total of 80 passengers (3.81%) and 19 crew members (1.95%) reported symptoms, while on Nieuw Amsterdam, the totals were 213 passengers (10.8%) and 35 crew members (4.29%).
Nieuw Amsterdam‘s outbreak was the most extensive of any reported so far this year in terms of percentages of guests and crew impacted.
Cruise ships are required to report any outbreak to the CDC when 3% or more of passengers or crew have gastrointestinal illnesses, typically marked by vomiting, diarrhea, or severe cramping. The total cases are reported from the entire voyage, not just during a single day or part of the sailing, and only represent those cases that are actively reported onboard.
Why So Many Outbreaks?
It may seem initially concerning to note so many outbreaks in just the first few months of the year, but it is equally important to note that post-pandemic awareness of transmissible illnesses is much high than prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Previously, it is highly likely that fewer guests would report such symptoms – which could be mistaken for food poisoning, general stomach flu, or other causes – whereas today, travelers are more aware of the potential dangers of such diseases and may be more likely to seek medical attention.
Gastrointestinal illnesses can originate from a number of sources, one of the most common of which is norovirus. This and other viruses typically survive on surfaces and can easily be transmitted by touching door handles, serving utensils, tables, hand railings, elevator buttons, and other high-use surfaces.
Read Also: Cruise Ship Illness: How to Protect Yourself
It is critical to note, however, that neither norovirus nor gastrointestinal illnesses are exclusive to cruise travel. According to CDC data, each year in the US alone, there are roughly 2,500 norovirus outbreaks recorded, which can reach 20 million or more cases, most commonly from November to April.
Norovirus outbreaks are commonly reported at healthcare facilities and nursing homes, restaurants, catered events, and schools. Only about 1% of reported norovirus outbreaks occur on cruise ships.
The best way to limit the risk of contracting norovirus or other illnesses aboard a cruise ship is to practice good hand hygiene with frequent handwashing or using hand sanitizer, avoiding high-touch surfaces as much as possible, and taking other steps to stay healthy overall.