Questions about Ebola and the safety of cruising are flying hard and fast after a healthcare worker, who potentially could have come in contact with the Ebola virus, was quarantined in her cabin aboard a cruise ship. She was never symptomatic and eventually tested negative for the virus.
National news outlets, social media channels and even Cruise Critic's own message boards are aflame with debates over whether travel of any kind is safe right now. To help all cruisers be better informed, Cruise Critic has put together five questions and answers about Ebola and the risk it poses to travelers in general, and cruisers specifically.
1. Is the risk of being exposed to Ebola any greater on a cruise ship than anywhere else?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO), unless you are traveling to a country with an active Ebola outbreak, work in a health-related job where care of a patient with Ebola is ongoing or live in close quarters with an infected person (spouse, children), you are at very low risk of contracting Ebola. Per WHO, "the risk of infection for travelers is very low since person-to-person transmission results from direct contact with the body fluids or secretions of an infected patient."
There's an exception: Countries with a Level 3 Travel Health warning. A Level 3 Travel Health warning from the CDC urges the public to avoid nonessential travel to a specific country or region. In the case of Ebola, the warning covers most of West Africa with a specific focus on Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
2. Is it safe to fly to your cruise (or anywhere else)?
The WHO says, "Because the risk of Ebola transmission on airplanes is so low, WHO does not consider air transport hubs at high risk for further spread of Ebola."
3. What is the screening process for passengers boarding a cruise ship?
Passengers embarking on a cruise ship must fill out a health screening questionnaire, which has historically consisted of just two questions, one about fever combined with other flu-related symptoms (cough, sore throat, runny nose, etc.) and a second questions about vomiting and/or gastrointestinal distress. Under the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cruise lines have added three new queries to the questionnaire. The new questions are designed to determine if a potential passenger has arrived directly from a country designated with a Level 3 Travel Health warning (hopefully we've explained what that is above) by the CDC or has traveled to, in or through such a country within 21 days before embarkation. These same questions are being put to crew. Additionally, the cruise lines are monitoring where the reservations are coming from, as well as passport nationality and visa information in booking and employment records. A third question, which was added to the form as of this past week, asks if embarking passengers (or crew members) have had physical contact with, or helped care for, a person with Ebola during the same time frame. If that's the case, passengers would be asked to submit to further medical screening before boarding.
4. Does the medical staff on my cruise ship have any Ebola-specific training?
The Cruise Lines International Association, the industry's governmental lobbying group and travel agent educator, has provided CDC and WHO medical guidance on Ebola to the cruise lines to distribute to their medical teams. Additionally, CLIA has put together its own protocol using much of the CDC and WHO information that contains elements of preparedness and response and sample instructions for cruise line medical staff to follow. While this protocol doesn't require specialized, hands-on training, CLIA's director of environmental and health programs, Bud Darr, told Cruise Critic he is aware of a "substantial amount" of training going on, though he could not comment on specific lines. Cruise line medical teams already have received training in dealing, generally, with infectious disease and the use of isolation, as they are always on the lookout for – and treat when needed -- Norovirus, a highly contagious gastrointestinal illness. According to Roger Frizzell, senior vice president and chief communications officer for Carnival Corp., the cruise industry is better prepared for Ebola than many because of its history in screening for and combating Norovirus.
5. If I'm afraid to cruise because of Ebola can I cancel and get my money back?
In short, no. Cruise line cancellation policies do not allow passengers to cancel their cruise days or even weeks before their scheduled sailing and receive full refunds. If you do cancel, you will receive port taxes and fees back, as well as a refund of any prescheduled shore excursions and specialty restaurant reservations. Also, if you are more than a couple of months out from your sailing date, check with your travel agent or the cruise line to see where you fit into their cancellation policy; you might be able to get a percentage of your money back.