You need to know two things to understand the norovirus issue that plagues us every year (pardon the pun). Surprisingly, neither covers how to avoid getting it, though the second point is absolutely the single most important overlooked fact in understanding the issue.
First: norovirus is not just a ship problem. In fact, it’s barely on ships at all, compared to how many land-based institutions are struck every year right in your own city. Norovirus is common throughout all of North America and Europe, being most prevalent in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and children’s day care facilities. It strikes every year. It’s so regular, in fact, it no longer incites headlines. Those are now reserved for the unusual, the exotic, such as “PLAGUE SHIP!” An illness transmitted from your children isn’t nearly as alarming as “RATS SPREAD DISEASE!”. But you get a cold or flu from your kids all the time. That headline wouldn’t sell many newspapers. Yet the land numbers are far, far greater than the sea numbers.
There have been 2,630 confirmed reports of norovirus so far this season in the UK, for example (as of several weeks ago, no less!), but for every reported case there are likely to be a further 288 unreported sufferers. That’s according to the Health Protection Agency (HPA). Recent figures from the HPA show that more than 750,000 people could be affected by the 2012 outbreak of norovirus that has swept the UK. It’s so bad, in fact, that they’re closing hospital wards and denying visitors access to the buildings. Take Birmingham City Hospital, for instance, which closed three wards due to norovirus infection, or Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals, which actually tweeted, “Please don’t visit hospital until at least two days after last symptoms of vomiting or diarrhea. Stay home, rest, and take fluids.”
But nobody thinks about infected hospitals down the street. They think of cruise ships. They think of sensational headlines. Take the media frenzy surrounding the P&O liner Oriana, dubbed ‘a plague ship.’ “It’s a living nightmare.” “Scores of passengers laid low by virus.” “People were falling like flies, yet the crew were trying to insist everything was fine.”
Oh, the drama! The sick have vomiting and diarrhea a few days, tops, and possibly stomach cramps. If that’s your definition of ‘a living nightmare’, you suffer from a serious lack of real life. You’ll note the hospital referred to above even told sufferers to stay home and they'd be fine. Subjective perceptions of severity aside, let’s look at real numbers. More importantly, what’s behind them. It’s not what you think at all.
An outbreak, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, is 3% or higher of reported passengers or crew being sick. Please note the inclusion of ‘crew’. When one crew member is sick, ALL of his/her cabin mates are automatically quarantined and counted as sick. Thus, the number of infected is artificially inflated by double or more from the very beginning. This directly affects passengers, however, because things snowball rapidly as remaining crew shoulder the additional workload (with no increase in pay, of course). As a rule, all crew members are already overworked and nearly all live in a state of near-exhaustion. It is not surprising, then, that many crew members jump on the bandwagon and call in sick just to get a glorious eight hours of sleep—something which they probably haven’t had in ten months (yes, really).
So what does this mean? It means that an official outbreak on a cruise ship could potentially involve a mere 1% of people or even less! I don’t know about you, but I don’t think 1% of the population being sick during cold and flu season to be the definition of ‘a living nightmare.’
By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.
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