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Sick Ships or Passengers? 

(October 16, 2003) 

A stomach virus outbreak sickened 120 passengers and crew members aboard the Carnival Holiday sailing to Mexico that ended in New Orleans Thursday. In the past several years, thousands of passengers have fallen ill as a result of a virulent stomach bug that some cruise lines seem unable to stop. What's going on? Is it the ships or is it the passengers? 

Cabin Fever 

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there have been 23 outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness aboard 19 ships so far this year. Eleven were confirmed norovirus. In 2002, an estimated 1,600 passengers on seven ships operated by five different cruise lines were infected; though numbers might be higher since many vacationers may have failed to report the illness. The CDC, which monitors cruise cleanliness standards, says the outbreaks have been caused by the Norwalk virus (NLV), a gastrointestinal bug that causes fever, vomiting and diarrhea for up to 48 hours. 

Last year's most notorious cases had two ships reporting several hundred passenger maladies the same week. Eighty-seven passengers fell ill on Holland America's Amsterdam and over one-hundred aboard Disney's Magic. Interestingly, both ships share the same homeport of Port Canaveral, Florida. In the case of the Amsterdam, the vessel had already seen more than 400 cases on three prior sailings. Customers had been notified before departure of the possible risks. Prior to the last sailing, Holland America had deployed 600 workers to clean the vessel, even disinfecting the smallest items such as bibles and poker chips. However, despite the intense cleaning effort the company decided to cancel the next sailing so the vessel could again be sanitized. 

Another Holland America vessel, the Ryndam, was taken out of service in Alaska during the summer of 2002 after 395 passengers fell ill-one man subsequently died and lawsuits have been filed against the company. Princess Cruises' Ocean Princess also reported cases over the summer in Alaska, with 169 suffering from the illness.

 The CDC says there have also been significant outbreaks in Europe. Cruises in the Baltics have been particularly affected, although 189 also fell ill during a September sailing from Dover to Boston aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's (NCL) Norwegian Dream

The Reality 

"The virus is highly infectious," says the CDC, "and is passed from person to person rather than through food or water systems. The risk of infection on a ship is particularly high because people are in a relatively confined space." The CDC says the cruise lines are not at fault, as it believes the virus is becoming more resistant. It advises travelers to be particularly conscientious about washing their hands. 

While the press coverage of the aforementioned outbreaks has bordered on sensationalism the statistical reality is that less than one percent of all cruise passengers worldwide have become infected with the virus. A. Kirk Lanterman, Chairman and CEO of Holland America says, "During the past six weeks, 450 guests reported some type of NLV symptoms aboard the ms Amsterdam this amounts to less than one percent of the 56,000 guests who have sailed with us in this time period." 

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