17th July 2014 marks the outbreak of a mosquito-borne virus Chikungunya in the French West Indies and Guyana; no vaccine or cure is present as if now. The virus is characterized by abrupt fever and joint pain along with fatigue and bodily rashes; however the virus is not fatal. Such viruses make shipping harder for crew and companies altogether; however with simple precautions and directions to take the risk factor can be minimized. Along with that, those sending research vessels to investigate the outbreak have special directions to take regarding transport and collection of specimens more safely. However the most important virus nowadays is the Ebola virus, with no cure available at the moment; leading to hardened transport measures and health risks for shipping and other global industries.

Firstly, to be safe from a pathogen one has to know about it and thus it warrants research; creating a need for a research vessel to be sent into the territory to collect specimen, gather data and test the ocean for the presence of the pathogen. So you got your crew and a research vessel ready for action but are you confident in your mission? Are you ready to accept the specimen? Is your port secure enough?

Currently, the season is summer which means the temperature and degree of humidity in the air is higher hence creating favourable conditions for carriage and cultivation of bacteria; making the pathogen more likely to infect someone. However, Chikungunya virus is not the main threat as another deadly pathogen, Ebola, has broken out; warranting more safety as it has claimed many lives during its short lifespan so far; bringing forth some common errors committed by ship crews which will have terrible consequences of spreading the virus further and worsening the epidemic.

The first error happens due to the lack of education about the virus and the situation in a country that is being entered, probed or berthed in. Crews will, unknowingly make contact with those being infected and not quarantined (for personal reasons the infected can hide their conditions) bringing the pathogen onto the ship. What can be done to correct this; the Master should inform crew in advance even if the country being entered is not known to have the infection; educating the crew about the virus’ way of spreading, risks and possible carriers as well as the outbreak’s impact on the geopolitical side of a country; giving brief ideas about those who hide the disease and how local authorities view it.

Vessels, especially from Western nations are likely to have stow-aways for a variety of reasons; what are the chances that the stow-away has the infection. ISPS requirements state that unauthorised passengers should be reported and not allowed to board the vessel; demanding strict enforcement. Stow-aways can board secretly through cargo and other methods not known before; warranting routine checks to be more regular and focused on possible convenient hiding spots; containers, lifeboats, dark rooms, engine rooms etc.

Another issue that concerns foreign soil is shore leave that is given to crews. Shore leave, while necessary for productivity and satisfaction of crews, in times of epidemics it is vital to based it on the situation itself. Shore leaves should be handed out with regards to the local situation. Ship owners should also refrain from crew changes in affected ports; preferably refrain altogether unless carefully inspected in advance.

When the vessel departs from the port, responsibility shifts more towards crew, especially those who were on shore leave or spent some time in-port. Crew can fulfill their responsibilities by knowing in-advance all the symptoms of Ebola HF:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Weakness
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting/Nausea
  • No appetite

Upon experiencing the above the crew members should report their condition to the ship’s command. However challenges to detect such symptoms, from perspectives of crew members themselves arise during activities such as heavy/manual work after which muscle and joint pain, fatigue can easily be dismissed as normal cramps. Nausea can be dismissed as sea-sick and fever, headache can be dismissed as normal. Detecting it is a challenge and thus a controversial but cautious approach should be used; upon experiencing any of the above a crew member should report it and put on a watch, if symptoms persist the subject should be quarantined.