Norovirus: scourge of the high seas

Jan 30, 2007
Hugh Russell

Like cabaret and cheap booze, a vomiting bug is a cruise ship rite of passage

The dreaded Norovirus is back. Terror of the seas, scourge of the cruising public, it never really goes away.

Last autumn a Thomson cruise was stranded at Madeira. In December Royal Caribbean's giant Freedom of the Seas staggered around the West Indies with nearly 400 of its 5,000 souls struck down.

Now it's the turn of our own QE2. More than 200 passengers fell victim last week, and were "confined to their cabins" - cruise-ship speak for being quarantined in little rooms while lying helpless on their beds, groaning horribly and leaking from all orifices.

The QE2 pulled into Acapulco, where the crew battled to stamp out the virus, assisted by local experts from the Centre for Disease Control. She then moved on to San Francisco, where more CDC storm-troopers charged up the gangway with armfuls of disinfectant. Now she is reported to have docked in Honolulu, and apparently the crisis is over.

Norovirus is the number one enemy for cruise operators, superseding all other hazards - hurricanes, pirates, blocked lavatory systems. When it strikes, captain and crew react with what would seem like panic if you didn't know how virulent the bug can be.

They don’t mention the second-rate food, the stinking bathrooms - or Norovirus

You'll find no mention of it in the brochures. Cruise ships, the floating Butlins of the 21st century, like to maintain the illusion that when you step on board you'll find yourself in a lost world of luxury, Thirties-style sybaritic sensuality, and cheap booze. They don't mention the second-rate food or the stinking bathrooms (nothing smells quite like a cruise ship after a week at sea). Above all they don't mention Norovirus... until they've got it.

My closest call with the plague came when I joined some 2,000 passengers for a Caribbean cruise with P&O. I'd rather not say precisely which fun-palace it was, because I'm one of the flotsam and jetsam of cruising entertainment, presenting "interest lectures" in return for a nominal fee and a free trip.

Norovirus made its presence known when we were two days into the Atlantic crossing. And as the victims went down, so the balloon went up.

You saw it first in the self-service restaurant. Instead of passengers helping themselves to piles of eggs, bacon and beans for breakfast, waiters in surgical gloves doled out the portions themselves, which led to interesting discussions between bow-fronted gentlemen from Birmingham and ultra-slim youths from the Philippines on how many sausages constitute a reasonable helping.

As cases mounted, one restaurant was closed, and guests were obliged to eat in the more formal dining rooms, where they were served by more Filipino waiters who presumably had been hosed down with Lysol.

Temporary entertainers like me are treated by P&O as 'crew', so when Norovirus struck we received the following orders: We must not associate with passengers. We must not frequent passenger areas. We must not use passengers' facilities. We must not appear on deck. We must not fondle rich widows looking for husbands.

Okay, I made the last one up. But I was getting a bit niggled by all these 'must nots' when a more experienced hand pointed out that the company was not protecting the passengers from me. It was protecting me from the passengers.

So I accepted the restrictions with a renewed sense of self-importance. I ate in the Officer's Mess (a cafeteria). I drank in the crew bar. I took my exercise at five in the morning on the deserted promenade deck, without actually touching anything.

Each morning at breakfast we asked the graceful medical officer if things were any better, and she told us wearily that she thought yes, they were getting better, and we knew they were getting worse.

But all credit to her and the ship's company: the bug was defeated. The vomiting and squirting stopped. And I was once again allowed - indeed, instructed - to resume contact with the passengers.

When we left for home we ran slap into an Atlantic storm. Sea-sickness - that's another thing they don't mention in the brochures.

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