Probe of cruise ships shows workers may spread illness

WEST PALM BEACH, Fka, - Could cruise-ship workers be putting passengers at risk?

After searching hundreds of inspection reports for every cruise ship that comes in and out of U.S. ports, reporters for WPTV-TV in West Palm Beach discovered that it's not only passengers getting sick, it's also the people who serve them.

"I started feeling nausea and the diarrhea came in," said Jose Nasuti, 70, and a veteran of more than two-dozen cruises. Nasuti, of Riviera Beach, Fla., called cruising "the best bargain out there."

But he didn't bargain for what happened on his last adventure.

"I lost eight pounds in four days," he said, claiming he picked up the stomach bug at the tail end of his vacation onboard the Carnival Freedom last year.

"I found out three of the six people I went on the cruise with all got sick, all had the same problems," he said.

Passengers can spread the norovirus, but who's watching out for the crew members?

In the past year, 14 outbreaks of norovirus were reported onboard cruise ships, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost 230 crew members have reported having the virus, along with almost 2,400 passengers.

Inspection reports for a cruise on the Carnival Freedom show that a butcher got sick on board last June and didn't tell the onboard doctor until the next day. He reportedly continued working while having symptoms.

CDC inspectors say workers are required to report an illness right away. Food workers are supposed to be isolated for at least two days, but that doesn't always happen.

WPTV checked on about 170 ships that come in and out of U.S. ports. Of those, 59 had workers that didn't report the illness properly, inspection reports show.

Inspection reports for the Allure of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean ship in Miami, show that a cafe attendant worked the day she was sick and "broke medical isolation" to go to the laundry room and to the ship's cafe.

On the Freedom of the Seas, another Royal Caribbean ship, a worker who cleans the ship had diarrhea and stomach cramps but continued cleaning and didn't report the illness until 12 hours after symptoms began.

The CDC is in charge of inspecting cruise ships at least once a year while they're docked at port.

"If you have a food worker who's ill who's working with food, that's a common, really a classic way to transmit illness," said Capt. Jaret Ames, chief of CDC's vessel-sanitation program. "It's absolutely wrong and it's absolutely a famous way to make people sick."

The CDC can lower a ship's inspection score, but it's up to the cruise companies to discipline their own workers.

For more than a month, WPTV tried calling, emailing and even showing up at Carnival cruise line headquarters in Miami. No one was talking.

In a statement, Carnival said the company maintains a "zero-tolerance policy" and said it has fired workers in the past for not reporting an illness.

"If you have nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, you should go to the medical facility as soon as possible," said Dr. Bradley Feuer, a family physician, lawyer and travel agent who has traveled on more than 150 cruises. He said that, for the most part, cruise companies do a good job of policing workers. It's in their best interest.

"They will take disciplinary action for employees who don't report in a timely fashion," he said.

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