Travel historians trace the beginning of the increase in cruise vacations to a television show in the 1980s that suggested love was to be found along the decks and in the buffet lines of cruise ships.
In fact, cruises' popularity continued to grow long after the show had played itself out. Last year, the "global cruise economy" was estimated at $37.1 billion dollars; a bump of another $2.5 billion is expected in 2015.
Ships accommodating as many as 5,000 passengers and crew members now ply the oceans and seas. Many people sign up for several cruises a year and exchange anecdotes with similar-minded friends about the ships they have seen and the sights they have seen.
But there is at least one drawback to cruise vacations: the risk of stomach flu.
An Unhappy Coincidence
News outlets reported the unfortunate experience of one American couple on cruises in January 2014 and again last month.
All they wanted to do was sail to the Bahamas. And they did, except for one problem.
On last year's trip, a nasty virus rippled through the ship, sickening 630 travelers, including the wife. Symptoms included nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.
This sort of thing can diminish the delight of nice vacation.
(I do not cruise myself, but I feel the woman's pain. My single experience with stomach flu occurred after a dinner at a fancy restaurant in Paris, France. The next day's plane ride home was rather uncomfortable. Actually, extremely uncomfortable. Since then I have declined to eat terrine.
(But I digress.)
The cruise ship returned early to port, the woman recovered in a few days and the cruise line offered a discounted price on a second cruise. The woman and her husband accepted the deal and set off last month for the Bahamas.
Again, a nasty stomach complaint made an appearance. This time, more than 200 people got sick. The woman may or may not have become ill -- reports vary -- but again their ship hastened its return to its home port.
Once home, the woman's husband, who said he had been wary about a second cruise, summed up the experience in a television interview:
"Men running around in hazmat suits and chemical sprayers. Fun. Good. Good trip."
The cause of the sickness on both ships was probably one of several bugs known by the name norovirus. It is highly contagious and can be picked up simply by touching a doorknob or anything else that a previous sufferer has touched. Its power to infect can last as long as four weeks.
The close quarters of cruise ships -- essentially huge hotels with tiny rooms and many crowded public areas -- make controlling the virus a challenge. The ship on which the woman was sickened by norovirus early in 2014 had another outbreak later in the year. Last month there was another outbreak, on a different ship, as the unlucky couple were on their second cruise.
Obviously, you can pick up a norovirus anywhere. We hear more about cruise ship incidents because the Centers for Disease Control require reports of each incident when more than three percent of a ship's passengers complain that they have come down sick.
Researchers are working now to develop a vaccine that will protect people from norovirus. I wouldn't be surprised if cruise companies were contributing to the effort.
A smart CNN reporter consulted a Navy captain last year about how his attack ship keeps its 3,200-member crew healthy. The captain said that crew members passed medical inspections before boarding, that each area of the ship was cleaned daily, that its kitchens were examined several times each day and that sick crew members were quarantined immediately.
The captain speculated about the difference between his ship and a cruise liner:
"If you have a ship whose main center of gravity is social gatherings, food places, dancing areas, gating on decks, and places for libation -- all those things that sailors wish they had but don't have on our Navy ships -- then I think it's a much more challenging environment to control the spread of a highly contagious virus."
In reading reports on the norovirus/cruise hazard, I came upon comments by people outlining how they protect themselves on such voyages. Here are some of their thoughts:
-- I cruise frequently, along with family members. We have been lucky to avoid noro.
A few things I do, DO NOT use handrails on the stairs UNLESS needed, and if I do, I remember not to touch my face till my hands are washed.
In the bathroom, after washing hands, turn off faucet with paper towel and use same towel to open the door.
If you have to touch an elevator button, try to use the back of your finger, to help protect yourself, till you can wash your hands. Since noro can happen in many places -- including schools -- basic self-defense hygiene practices help a lot.
We also prefer to eat in main dining room for the relaxation of it...but it keeps us from handling serving spoons that might be contaminated...so it's an extra plus.
We also usually use the hot tubs in the morning after they have been chlorinated overnight -- if we use it later (in the) day, we make sure to shower off.
-- My personal method of staying healthy on a cruise is to pick a cruise sailing when children are in school, or use one with such a good kids' program the children are not invading adult-only areas.
Use Purell all through the day and warm soap and water hand-washing as well. (Some illnesses are not prevented by Purell use.)
Eat meals in the dining room, or the little cafés. Never eat in the buffet area, unless the food is being prepared in front of you and could not have been touched by anyone.
Swim only in the adult-only pool, use only adult-only whirlpools. Do not use pools if the ship refuses to make parents keep children out of adult-only areas.