The Truth About Norovirus on Cruise Ships

What is Norovirus?

  • Norovirus is a very contagious virus, causing acute gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach, intestines or both). Norovirus can be contracted from an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces. The virus causes inflammation in the stomach or intestines leading to stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.

Worldwide Industry Facts

  • Worldwide, norovirus is the leading cause of acute gastroenteritis. About 1 in 5 cases of acute gastroenteritis, which leads to diarrhea and vomiting, is caused by norovirus.

Incorrectly Called the Cruise Ship Disease

  • Incidents of norovirus or other gastrointestinal (GI) disease are quite rare on cruise ships. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 20 million people on land in the U.S. come down with norovirus every year.
  • In the U.S., the risk of getting norovirus each year is about 1 in 15; a cruise passenger has about a 1 in 5,500 risk of getting laboratory-confirmed norovirus during a shipboard outbreak.
  • While global information on norovirus outbreaks is not available, the CDC runs the Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP), which collects the total number of GI illness cases on cruise ships before the ship arrives at a U.S. port, when sailing from a foreign port.
  • As the only national or international body tracking norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships, the CDC reports favorably  on the cruise industry’s efforts toward minimizing the spread of outbreaks in its  Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), titled “Acute Gastroenteritis on Cruise Ships – United States, 2008-2014.”  A few highlights:
    • “Cases of acute gastroenteritis illness on cruise ships are relatively infrequent.”
    • “Collaborative efforts with the cruise industry have allowed VSP to provide more rapid support to cruise lines and ships experiencing higher than expected levels of acute gastroenteritis.”
    • “Fewer and less severe outbreaks are likely the result of earlier detection of acute gastroenteritis, along with cruise industry efforts to identify and control outbreaks.”

Preventing Norovirus Onboard

  • Cruise lines do their part to ensure a healthy cruise experience and that passengers and crew maintain good hygiene onboard.  
  • Cruise ship crew members employ strict cleaning and sanitation practices developed with the CDC and other public health authorities.
  • The best way to prevent norovirus is thorough, frequent hand washing, taking care of yourself by getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of water, and being aware and considerate of other people’s health.
  • All of the efforts made by cruise ship crews cannot replace the responsibility that rests with each and every individual. Passengers and crew alike must also be committed to keeping themselves, their family and their fellow travelers healthy.