Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam, renowned for its celebration of New York City’s rich history through design and art, is currently embarking on a 14-day tour from Canada to Alaska and back. Despite offering an array of luxurious amenities such as spa treatments, exquisite meals, and pickleball at sea, a recent setback has dampened the experience for some passengers and crew members. The cruise has become the eleventh this year to be plagued by a gastrointestinal illness outbreak, indicating a resurgence of pre-COVID levels of concern. This upswing in outbreaks represents the highest recorded number since 2018, with the unfortunate incidents occurring throughout the year, rather than over an extended period.
Tracking Gastrointestinal Illnesses at Sea:
Under the Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mandates that cruise ships report occurrences of gastrointestinal diseases on board. Cruise liners are required to report cases before reaching a US port from a foreign location or whenever the illness affects 3% or more of passengers or crew members. Thus far, cruises featuring the US as part of their itinerary have witnessed 1,503 cases of gastrointestinal illnesses in 2023. Among those affected, 1,321 were passengers, while 182 were crew members. The source of the majority of infections remains unknown, but three outbreaks have been attributed to norovirus—a commonly identified cause of gastrointestinal diseases on cruises. Norovirus can survive on surfaces and spreads easily in the confined spaces where individuals share close quarters and buffet dining is prevalent.
The Nieuw Amsterdam Outbreak and Industry Impact:
Although the Nieuw Amsterdam outbreak involved a significant number of individuals, it was considered relatively mild, and all affected individuals were promptly quarantined. The Princess Cruises’ Ruby Princess holds the record for the highest number of cases this year, with 234 passengers and 34 crew members falling ill due to a norovirus outbreak during its mid-February voyage. Data on cruise ship outbreaks has been available since 1994, revealing a substantial decline in incidence rates since the early 2000s when outbreaks frequently exceeded 20 per year. The recent surge in outbreaks could also indicate a return to pre-pandemic ridership levels, as approximately 15 million people cruised in the US in 2019, compared to only 2 million in 2021 and roughly 5 million in 2022.
Putting the Risks in Perspective:
It is essential to recognize that while these outbreaks raise concerns, they are relatively rare occurrences considering the millions of people who embark on cruises each year. Gastrointestinal illnesses of this nature are more prevalent on land, with the US recording approximately 2,500 norovirus outbreaks annually, leading to up to 21 million cases. The CDC emphasizes that the tracking and reporting of illness on cruise ships are more efficient due to health officials’ presence, facilitating a quicker response compared to land-based outbreaks. Nevertheless, adhering to basic health precautions is advisable to minimize the risk of falling ill during a cruise, including reporting any pre-existing illnesses before boarding, practicing frequent handwashing, and avoiding close contact with individuals displaying signs of sickness.
The recent upsurge in gastrointestinal illness outbreaks on cruise ships, exemplified by the incidents aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam, has underscored the need for vigilance in the industry. While unfortunate, these outbreaks remain relatively isolated events within the broader context of the millions of individuals who enjoy cruise vacations annually. By closely monitoring and swiftly responding to such incidents, cruise liners can continue to provide safe and enjoyable experiences for their passengers while prioritizing their well-being.