Coronavirus: how serious are disease outbreaks on board cruise ships?

Simon Calder
AFP via Getty Images

The outbreak of coronavirus on board Diamond Princess meant that thousands of passengers had to go into quarantine in Japan.

But the incident has drawn attention to the risks of catching bugs on cruise ships.

These are the key questions and answers:

What is the cruise industry saying?

The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) said that its members – which represent the vast majority of cruise ships – will “deny boarding to all persons who have travelled from, visited or transited via airports in China, including Hong Kong and Macau, within 14 days before embarkation”.

Its members will also "deny boarding to all persons who, within 14 days before embarkation, have had close contact with, or helped care for, anyone suspected or diagnosed as having COVID-19, or who is currently subject to health monitoring for possible exposure to COVID-19."

This has come about as a result of the spread of the coronavirus on board Diamond Princess. The cruise lines are desperate to avoid any repeat.

What are the rights of people who are affected by the new rule?

A typical case would be someone who has booked to Singapore, Japan or Australia via Hong Kong in order to join a cruise. Their travel agent should right now be rebooking on another airline. If that’s not possible, the passenger should be entitled to a full refund of the cruise – including the air fare.

If the flight and cruise have been booked separately, the traveller will need to arrange alternative flights at extra expense, and try to claim the cash back from travel insurance.

Are cruises particularly susceptible to the spread of diseases?

Yes. A large number of people from all over the world are packed together in a relatively small space. If someone boards who is infectious, it is easy for that virus to spread.

Every year there are cases of Norovirus spread on cruise ships: in 2019 the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported eight confirmed outbreaks involving seven different ships.

The worst was on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas in January 2019, when 561 of the 6,285 passengers fell ill – representing nine per cent of the total.

The average for the cruise industry is around four per cent of the people – typically one in 25 passengers will contract an illness when there is an outbreak on board.

Princess Cruises has reported to the CDC that it is increasing cleaning and disinfection procedures.

Is the age of passengers a factor?

Not in terms of the spread of diseases, but certainly in terms of their effects. Many of the people on board cruise ships are older travellers and therefore more at risk of serious consequences.

What can cruise passengers do to reduce the risks?

The main preventative measure is frequently and meticulous washing of hands, especially before eating.

The CDC recommends: “Take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest and drink plenty of water. Resting helps rebuild your immune system. Drinking water helps prevent dehydration.

“Leave the area if you see someone get sick.

“Report it to cruise staff if they are not already aware.”