08/18/2012 08:59 am ET Updated Oct 18, 2012

What Does It Mean When Your Cruise Ship Is Sick?

During my years as a television news reporter and anchor, the assignment desk would erupt in activity whenever they heard about a cruise ship coming back to port with sick passengers. As the anchor, I would toss to the reporter, who was live on the scene, telling us about a macabre-sounding disease called, "norovirus."

As we head into the end of summer and beginning of Fall, we will hear more about the norovirus because cruise ships will start their Caribbean cruises and the cold and flu season kicks off again. This means more stories about cruise passengers getting ill while at sea.

The word "norovirus" does sound pretty bad. I even thought there was something dangerous about sailing on cruise ships after I heard about case after case.

That was until I talked to doctors at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and found out that norovirus is nothing more than the stomach flu -- and it isn't a disease that people only get on cruise ships.

According to the braniacs at the CDC, "the common cold is the only illness more common, and
the CDC estimates that there are more than 20 million cases of norovirus annually."

I just came back from a cruise with my parents who are in their 80s. If anyone would be sensitive to illnesses or the norovirus, it would be my mom and dad. None of us got sick after 12 days at sea onboard the Celebrity Silhouette. Healthy people who wash their hands and eat their vegetables are unlikely to get sick on cruise ship, even if there are people with norovirus onboard. Thanks Mom.

I have been on more than 70 cruises and never been sick. More people get sick flying on planes every year compared to people who cruise. Fewer people cruise, of course, which makes the comparison a little unfair, but if someone gets sick on a plane, should we all not fly?

"Norovirus is a very contagious virus," say researchers at the CDC. "You can get norovirus from an infected person, contaminated food or water or by touching contaminated surfaces. The virus causes your stomach or intestines or both to get inflamed (acute gastroenteritis). This leads you to have stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea and to throw up." The bottom line is, you barf and get the runs.

So why do we hear so frequently about norovirus if it is not a cruise ship disease? Should we be scared to go on cruises, since we could all end up in our staterooms barfing and pooping? The answer is no.

We hear about norovirus on cruise ships, first, because news stations love to report the story. It makes a good, "if it bleeds, it leads headline." The second and more important reason is that cruise ships are one of the few hospitality industries that must report every sickness on a to the CDC.

The CDC tells me, "Nowhere else in the public health system of the United States is norovirus a reportable illness. Norovirus is not a 'cruise ship' illness, but an illness commonly seen in many settings throughout the United States."

When you stay in a hotel, there may be several people who are suffering from the stomach flu. You wouldn't know about them because you probably won't see them. When someone gets sick in a hotel, they don't go downstairs to the front desk. Even if they do tell the front desk, the hotel does not have to report it to any official organization, thus there are no records. On a cruise ship, sick passengers go to the medical office, they tell the doctor they are sick and the doctor has to notify the CDC that a passenger was treated for that illness.

The CDC says, "Anyone can be infected with norovirus and get sick. Also, you can have norovirus illness many times in your life. Norovirus illness can be serious, especially for young children and older adults." The people who cause norovirus on cruise ships are usually sick before they get on. Other people get sick because they haven't washed their hands properly, they are elderly or they have some sort of disease that compromises their immune system

Norovirus, just like the flu and, even a cold, is more dangerous to the elderly and small children. The smart people at the CDC say, "Norovirus is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the United States. Each year, it causes about 21 million illnesses and contributes to about 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths. Norovirus is also the most common cause of foodborne-disease outbreaks in the United States."

The CDC inspects all cruise ships that dock in the United States. It's part of their Vessel Sanitation Program. Cruise ships are scored, just like many restaurants are scored by health inspectors. You can see cruise ship inspection scores here

If you go to the link, you will see that most cruise ships get health inspection scores in the 90s and even perfect scores. (Eighty six or above is considered passing.) The Vessel Sanitation Program also monitors vessel cleanliness and there is no correlation between scores and outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness. In fact, Crown Princess, which was forced to end a cruise early in February 2012 to contain an outbreak, scored a 100 on its November 2011 inspection. The twice-yearly exam is known to be thorough and challenging

This may be a healthy time to sail, as cruise lines are developing proactive procedures to ensure that passengers on voyages, particularly throughout the winter season, don't get sick. If you cruise, you will see the staff cleaning everything all the time and you can't walk into a dining area without having your hands sprayed with hand sanitizer.

I think cruising is one of the best ways to travel. If you like to pay one price and see several destinations with all your meals included, it is one of the best all-inclusive vacations around. Thank God for our immune systems and Purell hand sanitizer.

If you ever have a question about cruising or travel or you want to share your stories, send me an email at Happy travels everyone.