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Cruise ship sanitation takes a hit

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The Royal Caribbean International's Explorer of the Seas is docked at Charlotte Amalie Harbor in St. Thomas, U. S. Virgin Islands on Jan. 26, 2014. U.S. health officials investigated an illness outbreak that left 300 people with gastrointestinal symptoms including vomiting and diarrhea.

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The Royal Caribbean International's Explorer of the Seas is docked at Charlotte Amalie Harbor in St. Thomas, U. S. Virgin Islands on Jan. 26, 2014. U.S. health officials investigated an illness outbreak that left 300 people with gastrointestinal symptoms including vomiting and diarrhea.

The Royal Caribbean cruise ship that set sail from a New Jersey port over the weekend may be the most spotless craft plying the waves — having undergone a top-to-bottom scrubbing after a stomach bug sickened nearly 700 passengers and crew, cutting short the ship’s previous Caribbean getaway.

The general consensus was that Royal Caribbean moved aggressively to contain the nasty outbreak of vomiting and diarrhea, and the cruise line pledged that there wouldn’t be a recurrence. But the Explorer of the Seas’ voyage was one of several ill-fated recent cruises.

The ordeal hardly compared to what unfolded a year ago after a Carnival ship lost power, leaving it without air-conditioning or working toilets. Far worse was the horrific grounding of a cruise ship off Italy in 2012, which left 32 dead.

But with many likely dreaming of bidding bon voyage to the frozen Northeast aboard a cruise, yet another saga of sickened passengers is a reminder of the need for more official oversight, operator vigilance, and consumer savvy.

It was good to see inspectors from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention board the ship during a port call in the U.S. Virgin Islands to investigate what they soon attributed to norovirus. The agency’s review may also provide insight into how the virus swept through the ship. But passengers would no doubt prefer that such outbreaks be prevented in the first place.

Indeed, the CDC’s vessel sanitation program (www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp) conducts periodic pre-emptive inspections of cruise ships, deducting points for less-than-shipshape sanitary conditions. As it happens, the Explorer passed its most recent inspection last summer with a score of 98 out of 100. Even so, officials detailed several pages of infractions to be addressed.

More frequent inspections might well reduce shipboard outbreaks — which, fortunately, are still quite rare, according to industry exports. In the absence of government resources to examine ships more often, it’s up to the cruise lines — which certainly have the greatest incentive to get this right — to run the tightest ships they can where sanitation is concerned.

That said, the norovirus in some instances can be brought aboard by already-ill travelers. That means it’s vital that all seagoing travelers take preventive steps such as frequent hand-washing.

In addition, there are a number of cruise lines whose fleets have not failed any inspections. That information, as well as the most recent sanitation grades for individual ships, is posted online by the CDC. For prospective passengers, it could prove even more useful than a life jacket.

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