Dec. 2, 2002 – With cruise line executives and federal health officials trying to reassure the public that they have a handle on what's been causing passengers on the high seas to get sick, one of the ships stricken with mysterious gastro-intestinal ailments is scheduled to arrive in Charlotte Amalie on Wednesday.
The Holland America Line's Amsterdam set sail from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Sunday after crews spent 10 days cleaning and disinfecting the vessel. The efforts followed a Nov. 21 episode that reportedly left about 64 passengers with nausea, stomach pain and diarrhea for 24 to 48 hours.
When the sanitizing work was completed, cruise line spokeswoman Rose Abello said: "We are very confident that we have broken the cycle."
Passengers on board the Disney Magic, another ship that regularly calls at St. Thomas, fell victim to what may have been the same ailment. About 175 passengers developed symptoms of a stomach virus during a sail from the Bahamas, also on Nov. 21. Despite a thorough cleaning given the ship at Port Canaveral at the end of the cruise, there was a second outbreak on the trip that followed last week, and the Magic has been taken out of service for another going over.
"The Magic will miss its next call to St. Thomas," Calvin Wheatley, spokesman for The West Indian Co., said on Monday afternoon. He said the vessel's place at the WICO dock will be taken by the Costa Atlantica.
National news media were reporting on Monday that nearly 500 people had fallen prey to the ailment on board each of the two ships in the course of repeated incidents not reported until days later.
Meanwhile Monday, the networks reported a third vessel experiencing an outbreak of stomach illness: Carnival Cruise Lines' Fascination returned to Miami from a three-day Bahamas cruise with more than 170 passengers stricken.
Officials at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they suspect the Norwalk virus, a commonly occurring gastro-intestinal ailment spread through food and water and close contact with infected people or things they have touched. A CDCP spokesman said the virus spreads easily when people are confined to a small area such as a ship and stated that there is "nothing that we've seen thus far to suggest this is any sort of bioterrorism."
However, the CDCP is tracking remedial actions being taken by the cruise lines, following its own guidelines for ship sanitation.
There are also reports that in July another Holland America ship, the Ryndam, suffered an outbreak of a Norwalk-type stomach virus among its passengers during an Alaska cruise. It also has been reported that aboard another sister ship, the Statendam, about a dozen passengers complained of flu-like symptoms before the ship arrived in San Diego on Nov. 25, and that a few weeks earlier, 42 passengers on the same vessel became sick.
Holland America Line is owned by Carnival Corp., the parent company of Carnival Cruise Lines, but the fleets are maintained separately. Investigators are looking for answers to the question of how passengers aboard different ships owned by different cruise lines and sailing out of different homeports could come down with what is suspected to be the same ailment at almost the same time.
"We really have to think, 'Where's this originating from?' It really makes you wonder," St. Thomas retail executive Monesh Mohanani said on Monday.
Mohanani, who owns a shop at Havensight Mall by the WICO dock, is vice president of the Havensight Mall Association. So far, he says, the timing of the illness outbreaks has not prevented any ship from making its regularly scheduled visits to the territory. Unaware that the Magic has temporarily been taken out of service, he added that St. Thomas is so close to the start of its busiest time of the year for ships that one missed port call would not have a big impact on the local economy.
It remains to be seen whether an ongoing problem will result in would-be visitors cancelling their cruise bookings.
Because of the international attention on the documented outbreaks in recent days, officials at both the national and local level are taking a look at their contingency plans. In the Virgin Islands, Wheatley said, a combined response would be needed to address any instance of a large number of tourists suddenly becoming sick.
"It is my understanding that there are four agencies working on this case — Public Health, the Coast Guard, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of Health," Wheatley said. "They would become involved because they would have to be notified of any illness that occurs on board."
Such was the case where just one passenger was involved on Monday morning, when a cruise ship made an unscheduled stop at Charlotte Amalie because of a medical emergency. The Carnival Legend was en route from Martinique to Fort Lauderdale.
"There was a sick passenger with an appendectomy," Wheatley said. It pulled into St. Thomas "to drop the patient off before going to Fort Lauderdale."
An ambulance was waiting at the dock to transport the passenger to Roy L. Schneider Hospital. An administrator in the office of the hospital's legal counsel, Amos Carty, confirmed that the individual had undergone emergency surgery. No information on the person's condition was available.
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