The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has the Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) to assist the cruise ship industry to prevent and control the introduction, transmission, and spread of gastrointestinal (GI) illnesses on cruise ships. By training cruise ship employees on public health and monitoring GI illnesses and investigating or responding to outbreaks are two of the ways VSP helps the cruise ship industry. They also make unannounced operational sanitation inspections to make sure cruise ships are following their regulations.
By providing health education and reliable and current public health information to the cruise ship industry, traveling public, public health professionals, state and local health authorities, and the media, they have a better chance of preventing the spread of GI illnesses on cruise ships. Any cruise ship that carries 13 or more passengers and has a foreign itinerary with U.S. ports falls under VSP jurisdiction.
During the inspection, there are eight key areas to be evaluated on the ship. These include the medical center, potable water systems, galleys and dining rooms, swimming pools and whirlpools, housekeeping, pest and insect management, child activity centers, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). The VSP has a surveillance system that is maintained electronically. The system tracks cases of GI illnesses on cruise ships under their jurisdiction.
All cruise ships must report the number of passengers/crew members that say they have symptoms of a GI illness as well as keeping a list of people who have received antidiarrheal medication. The medical staff must send these reports to VSP showing the total number of GI illnesses within the passengers and the crew. Gastrointestinal illness is defined as three or more loose stools within a 24-hour period. It can also include vomiting, diarrhea, muscle ache, headache, abdominal cramp, and fever. The VSP will take all reports to determine whether there is a high number of people sick, is unusual cases are occurring, provide support to an increase in cases and analyze illness patterns over time.
There are many ways you can try to protect yourself from gastrointestinal illnesses. The first one is to use proper hand washing techniques. This should especially be done after using the bathroom and before eating, but also regularly throughout your trip. The next way to protect your self would be avoiding any food or water that you think may be contaminated and avoiding raw or undercooked shellfish. Lastly, avoid any direct hand contact with surfaces such as public toilet room door handles and others that may have an illness.