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Two Cruise Lines Now Affected by Stomach Virus

Disney scours ship after 100 fall ill, while the cause of the outbreak aboard the Amsterdam remains a mystery.

November 23, 2002|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — About 100 people aboard a Disney cruise ship have contracted an unidentified, highly contagious stomach ailment, officials said Friday, as another Caribbean passenger liner underwent intensive cleaning following a similar outbreak.

"We can't confirm what it is aboard the Disney ship, or the cause," said Bernadette Burden, spokeswoman of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. CDC inspectors, Burden said, will board the Disney Magic when it docks today at Port Canaveral, Fla., at the end of a weeklong cruise.

Seattle-based Holland America has scratched the next 10-day voyage of the 780-foot Amsterdam while it is steam-cleaned and disinfected. During its last four voyages, including one that ended Thursday, more than 500 passengers and crew have become infected with what public health officials say is a Norwalk-like stomach virus.

Burden said such an outbreak is not unique to cruise ships. "It can occur in other venues, other areas where large numbers of people congregate, like a Boy Scout jamboree, a hotel, a train," she said.

In August, another Holland America vessel, the Ryndam, was temporarily pulled from service on the line's Alaska route after an outbreak of Norwalk-like virus. On previous voyages, almost 400 passengers and crew members reported symptoms of gastrointestinal illness, the CDC said.

CDC inspectors have found the Amsterdam's food and water to be uncontaminated, Burden said Friday, so one likely scenario is that an infected person boarded the ship and transmitted the virus to others. The CDC spokeswoman said it hadn't been determined whether the original carrier was a crew member, port worker or passengers on each of the last four cruises. On those voyages, a total of 524 passengers and members of the Amsterdam's crew contracted the stomach virus.

The disease, so named because it is similar to a viral strain first identified 30 years ago in Norwalk, Ohio, is potent enough to be caught through a sneeze, a cough or contact with a ship's handrail that has been touched by a sick person. But the spread of the germ can be greatly limited by simple, thorough hand washing, CDC officials said.

Erik Elvejord, a Holland America spokesman, said sick passengers were offered various amounts of compensation, with those who broke off their holiday and flew home getting a full refund of the cost of the cruise, free airfare and a 25% credit toward a future cruise. Litigation, though, seemed likely: Already on Nov. 15, a lawsuit on behalf of stricken passengers was filed in Seattle.

One woman on the Amsterdam, Connie Woodcock, sent a dispatch while the ship was at sea last weekend to the Toronto Sun newspaper. Because of worries about transmitting the virus, the captain stopped shaking hands with guests at his cocktail parties, Woodcock said. The hot tubs were drained, salt and pepper shakers were removed, and waiters wore plastic gloves.

Mark Jaronski, a spokesman for the Disney line, said intensive cleaning began aboard the Disney Magic on Thursday morning after the passengers fell sick. It was the first large-scale outbreak in the line's four-year history, Jaronski said.

"We're deep-cleaning and disinfecting carpeting, linen, bedspreads, the air-conditioning, all common areas," the Disney line official said. Staterooms of sick passengers have been scrubbed, and at the on-board buffets, crew members dish out salad and other food, rather than letting passengers serve themselves.

When the ship, which can carry 2,600 paying guests, docks at Port Canaveral today, cleaning teams, microbiologists and other workers will board to continue the scrubbing and sanitizing. The plan is to send the ship out on its next cruise later the same day, Jaronski said.

"We will most definitely be delayed tomorrow, and we will not leave tomorrow if we are not satisfied with how things went," he said.

The company has been calling all passengers booked on the next cruise to give them the options of rescheduling or canceling with a full refund, Jaronski said. Any compensation for customers who became ill will be determined on a case-by-case basis, he said.

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