Is Cruising Safe For My Kids? Cruising With The Norovirus!

You can read more about this topic, as well as many other family cruising topics, in our new book–Cruising With Kids: A Guide To The Perfect Family Cruise Vacation. Visit our dedicated Cruising With Kids website for more details.

In recent years, viral outbreaks aboard cruise ships have become a more regular occurrence.  When Norovirus outbreaks began to soar in 2002, passenger related sanitation became more of a priority for both the CDC and the cruise lines.  Prior to this, the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) had mostly focused on typical crew and ship sanitation issues.

Although Norovirus outbreaks also occurred prior to 2002, they were less prevalent.  The CDC, in addressing this question, points to the growth within the cruise industry as well as the ease with which the Norovirus is transmitted. 

Fair enough, but what has been done about the problem and is cruising safe for my kids?  Let’s take a look at what the CDC has to say about the danger of the Norovirus.

“Noroviruses are highly contagious, but infections are not usually serious. People may feel very sick and vomit often or get diarrhea, becoming dehydrated if lost liquids are not replaced. Most people recover within 1 or 2 days and have no long-term adverse health effects.” – Centers For Disease Control

Although the virus itself isn’t dangerous according to the CDC, children and those with a weakened or compromised immune system may be more susceptible and experience more intense symptoms.  If you are sick, the best advice is to get plenty of rest and stay hydrated.  Confining the sick party to the cabin and limiting contact with others can also help to combat the spread of the virus.

Although the Norovirus is the number one outbreak reported on cruise ships each year, in 2009, Shigella, E Coli, and Cyclospora were also reported. 
Again, these encompass reportable outbreaks, which is limited to ships subject to the Vessel Sanitation Program, carrying 100 or more passengers on sailings of 3-21 days where 3% or more of the total passengers (including crew) reported symptoms of gastrointestinal disease.

In response, the cruise lines have been proactive in setting more aggressive sanitation guidelines for passengers as well as crew.  Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, for example, provides dispensers with hand sanitizer at the entrance to all dining venues and kids areas in addition to crew members dispensing sanitizer to passengers who may have missed the dispenser.  Royal Caribbean had no reportable outbreak of the Norovirus (or any other disease) between June 2007 and December 2010. Royal Caribbean’s outbreak free streak was broken on the February 22, 2010 sailing of the Jewel of the Seas, then again on the January 3, 2011 sailing of Radiance of the Seas and the January 28, 2012 sailing of Voyager of the Seas.

A quick look at the CDC’s Outbreak Update is revealing.  During 2009, the reportable outbreaks by cruise line were:  Holland America (7), Princess (3), Celebrity (2), Carnival (1), NCL (1) and Regent Seven Seas (1).  The numbers may not tell the whole story.  For example, one event for Regent Seven Seas may be significant in light of the fact that they only have 3 ships and there are fewer cruise each year.  In contrast, one event for Carnival, the largest cruise line in the world, may be less significant.

This information should be used in conjunction with historical trends as well as the CDC Cruise Ship Inspection Scores.  Looking at historical trends for the cruise line that reported the most outbreaks in 2009 may be telling.  Holland America reported 6 outbreaks in 2008, 5 outbreaks in 2007 and 7 outbreaks in 2006.  Of course, history does not always predict the future.

So, let’s take a quick look at the results in the years since we first wrote this article. In 2010, Holland America reported (3) outbreaks, a vast improvement, while Celebrity reported (4), Cunard (3) and Carnival and Royal Caribbean (1) each. In 2011, Holland America would report another (3), Celebrity (3), Princess (4) and Royal Caribbean (1).

Note the cruise line that is missing from recent reporting – Disney. Even with the launch of a new ship, they have managed to avoid any outbreaks since 2002. Likewise, Carnival had no reportable outbreaks in 2011, which when combined with the single outbreaks in previous years is a significant achievement for the largest cruise line in the world. We should note that Royal Caribbean has had a relatively good showing, as well.

In 2012, we’ve seen one reportable outbreak for Royal Caribbean and two for Princess.

The cruise lines that continue to have sanitation issues with respect to disease outbreaks, particularly with the Norovirus – Holland America, Princess and Celebrity. We’re not suggesting that you avoid these cruise lines, but perhaps you might want to take a few extra precautions when sailing. There are a few things that you can do to help avoid becoming sick.

  • Wash hands frequently
  • Sanitize your hands prior to and after all meals and activities
  • Make sure that kids sanitize their hands frequently while using the kid’s club facilities
  • Avoid touching your mouth, eyes or nose if your hands have not been washed or sanitized

Check out the CDC’s list of suggestions for more detail.

One incident or one bad score should not deter you from choosing a cruise line or a particular ship, however, consistent failures or trends should be noted.  So, is cruising safe for my kids?  Yes, it is just as safe as any other vacation.  When traveling, we should always take precautions to maintain our health.  Disease outbreaks can occur anywhere, not just on cruise ships.  We’re fortunate in the fact that the CDC requires cruise lines to report these outbreaks, whereas a hotel or resort may not.  Use the information as a guide to stay healthy and enjoy your cruise!

You can read more about this topic, as well as many other family cruising topics, in our new book–Cruising With Kids: A Guide To The Perfect Family Cruise Vacation. Visit our dedicated Cruising With Kids website for more details.

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