Horror stories of passengers contracting various illnesses on cruise ships are becoming more common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) is designed to prevent and control the spread of cruise ship illness claims and diseases, by implementing regular inspections and regulations.

The VSP inspects cruise ships periodically and by surprise. It monitors outbreaks and trains crew members on public health practices. Any ship that carries 13 or more passengers and connects with a U.S. port is subject to the program. Ships sailing out of US ports are inspected at least twice a year. One is announced; the other a surprise.

Cruise ship owners pay for the inspections based upon the weight of the ship. Prices range from $1,300 to $15,600 per inspection depending on the ship’s size. Inspectors examine the medical facilities, drinking water, swimming pools, food service, childcare centers, hotel services, ventilation and common areas. A final report is generated and sent to the cruise line.

Ships are graded on a 100 point scale. Points are deducted whenever a safety violation is found. Certain violations are easily fixed immediately, often during the actual inspection. Other more complicated issues may take longer to correct.

If a ship fails an inspection that is deemed to be an “imminent public health risk” that jeopardizes passenger safety, the VSP can recommend that the ship be docked. Imminent public health risks are:

1. Undrinkable water.

2. Unsafe food preparation.

3. Inadequate cleaning equipment.

4. Inadequate waste disposal.

5. An infectious disease outbreak.

If you are about to take a cruise, I urge you to review your ship’s annual inspection report. For example, the Amadea, a ship operated by the Phoenix Reissen Cruise Line on November 12, 2012 scored an alarming 63 out of 100 points. It’s potable water production system was operating improperly and without appropriate maintenance or inspection. Inspectors also found no water production records for the entire month of November.

Cruise ships can be a wonderful way to travel and see the world. But selecting the correct cruise line and ship can make the difference between having a vacation or a GI disease. Please check out how healthy your ship is before booking your next cruise.