The stricken liner was forced to cancel a planned stop in Lisbon and return to Southampton 24 hours early for thorough disinfection. The incident echoes the fate of the MV Van Gogh last month. It was forced to cut short a cruise through the Norweigian fjords and dock in Harwich. The prime suspect in both cases is the novovirus or "winter vomitting disease", thought to have come aboard with a passenger rather than through any hygiene shortcomings aboard ship alough efforts to keep the virus at bay while at sea all failed. These cases show that while an upset stomach is unlikely to kill you, it can spoil a good holiday.
One man who knows more about the subject than most is Mark Harrington, chief executive officer of Check Safety First (CSF), a monitoring company that helps hotels and cruise ships improve hygiene and safety. "Of all the illnesses contracted by Britons taking a break overseas last year, food-related incidents accounted for around 75 per cent of cases," said Mr Harrington.
Ensuring due diligence over hotel or ship hygiene is a serious matter for UK-based operators, not least because regardless of destination, any perceived failure entitles victims to sue the operator under British law. "Tour operators are reluctant to release figures as many cases end up in some sort of legal claim," Mr Harrington said. "One of the benefits of a package holiday is that the operator is responsible for your safety and the burden of proof lies with them and/or the hotel to show they have taken the necessary measures to safeguard your welfare."
CSF is employed on a contract basis to check hygiene and safety standards for hotel groups and cruise operators. It follows procedures developed by Nasa in the 1960s to reduce the chances of astronauts becoming unwell in space.
It's an unusual business. While there are other companies working in the area of health and safety, many of them offering laboratory sampling and training in food handling, none operates on quite such a global scale. And while the likes of Bureau Veritas and SGS provide analysis of management systems, neither specialises in the hotel industry; only CSF has stepped in to target the tourism market.
The company's risk management programme, Cristal, is made up of 240 checks that look for points of weakness. "We make sure hotels and their suppliers handle, cook and store food properly, everything from temperature testing to labelling where chemicals are kept and so on," said Mr Harrington. From its 11 offices worldwide, CSF employs agents to perform monthly audits for clients, always arriving unannounced. To date it has provided hygiene training for more than 200,000 hotel staff around the globe.
Most food poisoning comes down to a few repeat offenders, such as campylobacter, salmonella and E. coli. "If it's buffet food, it's got to be hot. If it's been left out in the sun and then gone cold, it's a breeding ground for infection. Chicken is particularly dangerous in this sort of environment," said Mr Harrington.CSF checks the delivery of food to hotels; something as simple as not having freezer trucks at the right temperature can scupper other safety precautions.
And what of the various perils on the sea? CSF monitors cruise ships in the Mediterranean as well as more than 70 vessels operating on the river Nile. "Ships face a particular problem, because if you've done something wrong the disease will spread very quickly. Ocean liners need to be more vigilant because there is no means of testing them once they put to sea," said Mr Harrington. The Nile ships monitored by CSF are fitted with a germicidal ultra-violet light which kills off bugs in the water used to wash fruit and salads.
Mr Harrington said that while most travellers are aware of the risks of drinking unclean tap water, they may not know so much about the threat from waterborne viruses. CSF works to prevent the occurrence of Legionella, a bug that inhabits showers and baths. Even in destinations considered developed, such as Spain, a common problem is posed by swimming pool water that has not been kept at the correct pH balance or contains insufficient chlorine: both increase the likelihood of finding Cryptosporidium, a bug that manifests itself as serious gastroenteritis. Young children and the elderly are particularly susceptible, as are those on slow-release medication, which can be wiped out of the system by regular vomiting.
CSF gives clients who meet its standards a Cristal award, a certification which is about to mark its 10th anniversary. It was developed to exceed the standards set down by the World Health Organisation, and can now be accessed online as well: e-Cristal allows hotels under inspection to check their progress online.
The website also provides CSF's clients with an opportunity to tempt potential customers: hotels and ships performing consistently well are placed on the organisation's consumer website. As for those travellers keen to do their own homework, CSF is launching an online manual, Staying Healthy, to raise awareness among holidaymakers.
More details on health and hygiene abroad, as well as the 'Staying Healthy' guide, are available online at www.checksafetyfirst.com
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