It can be the perfect vacation — Caribbean music, tropical drinks with funny umbrellas, a cheerful crew. But sometimes, those taking a cruise return to port days later complaining about a miserable voyage with hundreds onboard sick and illnesses spreading from passenger to passenger, ruining the dream getaway.
"I ran to the bathroom every 15 minutes. It was horrible," said one cruise ship vacationer.
We've all seen the headlines, but why does it happen? And how can it be prevented?
"Within the cruise ship industry, the adherence to good sanitary practices is vital," said microbiologist Dr. Peter Kmeick of Kappa Laboratories. "The hands become a very important issue. Here it's hand to eyes, hand to nose, and hand to mouth, and that transfers a large amount of the sickness."
Under Dr. Kmeick’s direction, we learned how to follow scientific protocols to carefully collect environmental samples, ensuring those samples could later be analyzed with a high degree of reliability.
To create a baseline of cleanliness, Dr. Kmeick reminded us that there is a right way and a wrong way to wash one's hands. To do it correctly, lather for 30 seconds, and allow another 30 seconds to rinse.
Once on board and in my cabin, we began taking samples.
We followed accepted scientific methods and stored each sponge in a sealed bag to prevent contamination.
Each time producer Michael Cowan took the samples, he also logged the date, time and location.
Safety is a top concern on cruise ships. Even so, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 1,000 passengers have gotten ill only only a month into this year's busy cruise season. If that pace continues, it will exceed last year's record.
From the dining room to the breakfast buffet to the hand rails, each step of the way our team took samples. As we did, we also noticed something — an all-out effort by the ship's crew to constantly wipe down and clean common surfaces.
Why? Experts say viruses and bacteria are shared mostly by hand contact. So I shook hands with passengers and crew alike.
Finally, we took samples from the ship's salt-water swimming pool and the popular hot tub.
We left the ship, flew to Miami and then delivered the specimens to Kappa Labs.
For five days the microbiologists examined our samples and analyzed them.
The results were both good and bad news. While most of what I touched was clean, not everything was.
Kerry Sanders: What you found in the bathroom after I touched the toilet seat and you tested my hand — did you discover that there was something that gave you concern?
Peter Kmeick: I would say the bathroom did give us some concern. We saw the presence of coliform bacteria, which is an indicator that there may be other things present as well.
Sanders: And are those the types of things that could make me ill?
Kmeick: There's a possibility. Yes.
The most disturbing results came from the hot tub, which showed what Kmeick says is an unacceptably high presence of coliform and E coli bacteria. If the bacteria gets into an open sore or is swallowed, as could happen bobbing around in a hot tub, E coli can make you ill.
Sanders: Does it bother you, as a scientist, to see how high those numbers are?
Kmeick: Those numbers need to be looked at and action needs to be taken.
Sanders: And we would have an expectation that these areas would be clean?
Kmeick: Our expectation would be, yes, that these areas would be free of E coli.
Sanders: If you knew what you know now, would you have gotten in that hot tub?
“The cruise ships are held to the highest standard of any public facilities in the world,” said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines. “If indeed there was bacteria in the one sample that you took, I'm quite certain that it would have been rectified in the next hourly inspection, in the next test, or certainly at the end of the day when the water was flushed out and the unit was disinfected.”
Sanders: When you look at the final results of these tests, what do you take away?
Kmeick: These are public areas. And these are areas that, if there are a lot of people, we take note to maintain ourselves.
Sanders: It sounds like something that my mom told me: "Wash your hands."
Kmeick: It's back to mom. It's back to mom.
The CDC says the most common illness that occurs on cruise lines is a Norwalk-like virus, which usually involves stomach troubles and takes about three days to run its course. There are about 23 million cases a year, but only about 10 percent of those involved people in vacation settings or on cruise ships. A virus is much harder to track than bacteria, and scientists would look for evidence of a virus only if there were an outbreak, which there wasn't on our voyage. Bottom line: In any environment, wash your hands!