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Is Your Ship Sea Sick?

When most of us choose a cruise ship, we look at things such as itineraries, shore excursions, and cabin size. But here's another thing to think about: sanitation. Poor sanitation has the potential to ruin your cruise, whether it's from tainted food preparation areas or galley crewmembers who don't routinely wash their hands.

Recently, dozens of Europeans sailing the Mediterranean aboard Thomson Holidays' Topaz were struck down with salmonella. This is the third case of food poisoning on the ship in two years. In the latest outbreak, 450 of the 1,007 passengers fell ill and were told they had an air-borne virus. However, when they returned home, many were diagnosed with salmonella. Unfortunately for Europeans, there is no program to monitor cruise ship sanitation.

Fortunately for American cruisers, there is a program. All cruise ships that dock in the United States are given regular inspections by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Vessel Sanitation Program. The program was established in 1975 after several major disease outbreaks on cruise ships. In the '70s and early '80s, outbreaks of diarrheal illness occurred 12 to 15 times each year aboard ships. The number of incidents has decreased since the inspections started but there are still problems. The numbers vary each year but CDC officials admit outbreaks usually number between four and nine.

Inspectors board a ship twice a year for unannounced inspections. Each inspection takes six to eight hours, depending on the size of the ship and the number of inspectors. A checklist is used to help evaluate such things as the ship's water supply and its food storage and preparation areas. Every ship starts with 100 points, and points are deducted for each infraction. Inspection scores from the mid-80s to mid-90s are the most common. Ships scoring 86 points or higher are considered satisfactory, while those scoring 85 and below are re-inspected within 30 days.

Do you know how clean your cruise ship is? Consumers can view inspection summaries by visiting the Center of Disease Control website, which maintains extensive reviews on vessel sanitation scores. In addition, you can request a fax by calling 888-232-6789 and requesting document No. 510051. You can also write them at:

Chief, Vessel Sanitation Program
National Center for Environmental Health
1015 N. American Way, Room 107
Miami, FL 33132.


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