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No, That Norwegian Cruise Line Ship Never Had Cholera Aboard

You might have seen headlines like this earlier in the week about Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Dawn, which reported that some 20 passengers were feeling ill:

Thousands stranded on Norwegian Dawn cruise ship hit by possible cholera outbreak” (CBS News)
Norwegian Dawn: Mauritius says cruise ship can dock after cholera scare” (BBC News)
2,000 cruise passengers rejected from port amid fears of cholera outbreak onboard” (New York Post)

Because of the ailing passengers, the ship was refused permission to dock in Port Louis (pictured above) on the island nation of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. 

Stories about outbreaks on cruise ships can seem common because unlike hotels, schools, and other land-based structures that serve lots of people, cruise lines are duty-bound to report even routine health incidents to the government. 

But the disease named in the headlines above is terrifying and insidious. Cholera, which used to be common in American households before the 1900s, can kill in hours if left untreated, resulting in a mortality rate as high as 50%. Modern water handling methods and medical advances in treatment have all but eradicated the disease in the United States. 

So when the world press chained the word cholera to cruise ship, thus was born a headline made in clickbait heaven.

We’re here to tell you the scare is over. The passengers and crew of the Norwegian Dawn went through a battery of tests for infectious diseases—and cholera was not present.

According to Le Matinal, a local English-language news outlet, the director of health services in Mauritius “says that the Mauritius Ministry of Health was in contact with the World Health Organisation, which shares their view that there is no problem of cholera or any other epidemic on board the Norwegian Dawn.”

Nevertheless, following the two-day delay while tests were performed, Norwegian Cruise Line cut the voyage short and provided guests with hotel rooms, new flights home, money for meals, a prorated refund, an onboard credit, and a future cruise credit, according to Seatrade Cruise News. All this despite the fact that cholera was never present and passengers were never at risk of catching it.

We don’t know exactly how the stain of a horrifically virulent disease like cholera became associated with whatever happened on board the Norwegian Dawn—for now, blame the fog of war. Some early published articles about the incident in USA Today attributed confirmation of the disease to a cruise spokesperson, but those confirmations, as well as specific references to cholera, were deleted from later revisions of the story.

I reached out to the reporter who filed that story and to Norwegian Cruise Line. Neither party could explain to me how the reports of cholera were introduced to the news bloodstream.

Given how people tend to want to think the worst about health on cruise ships—it’s a topic that has launched a million punchlines—it seems unfair that the ship’s reputation has now been smeared. Some media outlets, including Hong Kong–based BNN Breaking (which describes its own staff as “the trailblazers, the guardians, and the truth-seekers”), are still flatly calling the incident a “cholera outbreak” even though it wasn’t.

Because scary words harvest clicks, you’re unlikely to see most international publications fully recant. CBS News even kept the c-word in its continuing coverage: “Norwegian Dawn cruise ship allowed to dock in Mauritius after cholera scare.”

So we just wanted to point out clearly, once and for all: The Norwegian Dawn never had cholera. Multiple health organizations cleared the ship. 

Cruise ships get a bad rap for many reasons, and in some ways, that rap has been earned. Somehow, in this case, the word cholera got thrown around—and then lingered—when it just wasn’t true.

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