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Cruise ships may carry unwelcome passengers: Germs

Tina Krasner of South Windsor, Connecticut, was one of 3,050 people aboard a cruise ship when it departed from New Jersey on a tropical trip in January 2014. Unfortunately, her voyage ended prematurely and unpleasantly — Krasner was one of 630 passengers who got sick (along with 54 crew members) due to a norovirus outbreak.

"That sickness spread like wildfire, so fast," Krasner said. "It was worse than 'The Exorcist,' to be honest with you."

"Cruises are like an island in the sea," said Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency room physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "Essentially everyone is living together, working together, eating together, putting them at risk for passing infections to one another."

Even so, among the 22 million passengers aboard cruise ships each year, the number of them reporting outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness reaches only into the low thousands — a tiny percentage. In 2014, for example, 1,766 passengers and crew members reported gastrointestinal illness outbreaks aboard a total of nine cruise ships, according to statistics from the Vessel Sanitation Program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2013, it was 1,505 passengers aboard nine ships; in 2012, 3.064 passengers and crew members reported such outbreaks aboard a total of 16 ships.

To find out where germs may lurk aboard cruise ships, the Rossen Reports team went undercover on a four-day Caribbean cruise, armed with test swabs and an official bacteria meter. Health experts say that any reading over 100 on the bacteria meter is a fail.

Many passengers availed themselves of self-serve frozen yogurt, but when the handles of the yogurt machine were swabbed, they tested as totally clean. A dinner menu also registered as clean.

However, the ship's casino delivered different results. The handle of a slot machine had a reading of 373, well above the 100 threshold. The buttons on the ship's elevator delivered a similar result: 370.

A lounge chair by the swimming pool had a reading of 773 — more than seven times higher than the acceptable germ limit. But when a serving spoon at the buffet was swabbed, the result was 2,102. That's 20 times over the germ limit.

Not only that: When the sample from the serving spoon was sent to a certified lab, total coliform was found on it. "It's very bad," Glatter said of the finding. "These are bacteria that live in our gut, in our GI tract, and they make you really sick."

What can cruise ships do about such situations? "What they can do first is have someone serve you at the salad bar or the buffet," Glatter suggested. Having someone with gloves doing the serving instead of a self-serve arrangement is "the best way of preventing the spread of infection," he said.

The cruise industry told Rossen Reports that ships go through stringent and scientifically valid inspections by federal health officials, and that the industry has an exemplary record, continuing to raise the bar on health and sanitation practices. Experts say the advice aboard a cruise ship is the same as anywhere else: Wash your hands, use wipes, and pay attention if you see a lot of people touching the same thing, like a serving utensil.

Statement to NBC News from Cruise Lines International Association:

"Cruise lines undergo more stringent and scientifically valid inspections by Federal public health officials than the clandestine demonstration conducted for TODAY. The inspection results of the Federal government’s Vessel Sanitation Program, which are readily available to the public, show that the industry has an exemplary record on public health. As an industry, we continue to raise the bar on health and sanitation practices for the benefit of the 22 million people who cruise each year.”

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