Dirty Dining: Cruise Line Vessel Sanitation Inspections from the CDC don't tell the whole story

TAMPA, Fla. - Gary and Joy Edges just returned from a cruise without a care in the world.

"Did you take extra precautions washing your hands or anything like that?" asked ABC Action News anchor Wendy Ryan.

"God no!  We don't live that kind of life.  Our kids eat dirt off the floor so no, that would never be us," Joy Edges responded.

But others might not be as care-free after reading some recent statistics.

In a special Dirty Dining I-Team investigation, we looked through dozens of cruise line inspection reports from the CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program.

Not one ship failed their inspection since 2010.

All passed with flying colors, sometimes scoring close to 100% just days before an outbreak of the norovirus, which is never reflected on any inspection report.

More: See entire email responses from cruise lines below.

In 2011, there were 14 cruise ships that had an outbreak of the norovirus, and half of those sailed out of Florida.  Two of those ships sailed out of the Port of Tampa.

Holland America's Ryndam sailed in December and the Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Sea sailed in January of last year.

And so far this year, seven cruise ships have had to return to port because of the norovirus.  More than half of those departed from Florida.

From January to March of 2012, Princess Cruise Line had three ships hit with the norovirus, Celebrity Cruise Line had two outbreaks and Royal Caribbean and P & O Cruise Line each had one ship infected with the norovirus.

The CDC says norovirus spreads easily from person to person, through contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces, like the many hand-rails and elevator buttons on cruise ships.

"It has a very low infectious dose," said Captain Jaret Ames from CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program.
Captain Ames says the norovirus is highly contagious.

"It doesn't take many particles, they're easily transferable and they remain on surfaces and inanimate objects for not just days, but weeks.  Two to three weeks typically, and they're still viable.  That means they'll still pass on the infection," Captain Ames added.

And Captain Ames says the norovirus has nothing to do with the cleanliness onboard and that's why inspection scores are not affected by any outbreak.

"You may be making an assumption or people may be making an assumption that a ship that has an outbreak has poor sanitation condition onboard.  Sometimes it has nothing to do whatsoever with the conditions onboard the ship," Captain Ames explained.

But it can, if a cruise line employee contracts the virus.

"You can shed the norovirus for up to two weeks after having it. And if people are not washing their hands properly and they're preparing food for other people, it can spread that way," said Rebecca Snider, an epidemiologist with the Hillsborough County Health Department.

And Snider says strict sanitary practices must be followed to avoid getting sick.

"Your primary measure of defense is hand washing, frequently and thoroughly for 20 seconds with hot water and soap before you eat, before preparing food, anytime you use a bathroom, anytime you change a diaper," Snider explained.

But passengers like Edges believe you cannot live your life in fear.

"I think sometimes more dirt makes you healthy. People who are really afraid of germs end up being sicker than your average bear," Edges said.

To find out more, visit the website for the CDC - Vessel Sanitation Program - Cruise Ship Norovirus Outbreak Updates at http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp/surv/GIlist.htm#2012 .

CDC Vessel Sanitation Inspection Scores can be found at http://wwwn.cdc.gov/InspectionQueryTool/InspectionSearch.aspx .

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Response from Princess Cruises:

We take any increase in the numbers of passengers reporting to the medical center with gastrointestinal illness very seriously as the health and well-being of our passengers is our highest priority. At the first sign of an increase in illness, we immediately initiate additional enhanced sanitation procedures to interrupt the person-to-person spread of this virus. Our sanitation program has been developed in coordination with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Examples of specific sanitation measures include:

Disinfection of high-touch surfaces like railings, door handles and elevator buttons
Encouraging passengers to use correct hand washing procedures and enhancing this with the use of hand sanitizing gels placed throughout the ship
Isolating ill passengers in staterooms until non-contagious
Encouraging passengers to use their own stateroom bathroom facilities
Providing regular verbal and written communication to passengers about steps they can take to stay well while onboard.

Norovirus is so widespread that only the common cold is reported more frequently and we believe the illness is inadvertently brought on board by embarking passengers. The Centers for Disease Control

and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are 23 million land-based Norovirus cases each year in the U.S., affecting one in 12 people, or 8% of the population.  In contrast, the number of cruise passengers affected is 0.035% of the 10 million cruising population, or 1 in 3,600 of those who vacation aboard ships.

Karen Candy, Manager of Media Relations, Public Relations, Princess Cruises

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Response from Royal Caribbean:

During the sailings you reference below, Voyager of the Seas and Radiance of the Seas experienced an elevated number of persons with a gastrointestinal illness.  Those affected by the short-lived illness responded well to over-the-counter medication administered onboard the ship.

At Royal Caribbean International we have high health standards for all our guests and crew.  Therefore, in an abundance of caution, when Radiance of the Seas arrived in Tampa, Florida, on Saturday, January 8, and Voyager of the Seas arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Saturday, February 4,  we conducted an extensive and thorough sanitizing onboard the ship and within the cruise terminal, to help prevent any illness from affecting the subsequent sailings.  

Also, all guests received a letter at boarding that asks if they had experienced any gastrointestinal symptoms within the last three days.  Similarly, if guests were uncomfortable taking their cruise, for reasons related to personal health or otherwise, our staff assisted them in rescheduling their sailing for another time.

According to health experts, as many as 300 million people worldwide are affected by norovirus each year.  Only the common cold is more prevalent.  Therefore, we ask our guests for their assistance in following the advice of medical experts who tell us that the best way to prevent gastrointestinal illnesses is to simply wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water after using the bathroom and before eating anything.  We also recommend that guests use the complimentary sanitizing gel that we have available at various locations onboard as often as possible.  

Cynthia Martinez, Director, Global Corporate Communications, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

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