600 sick on Royal Caribbean Ship

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. said one of its ships will return home from the Caribbean two days early after hundreds of passengers and crew became sick.

Almost 19 per cent of passengers on board the Explorer of the Seas - 595 out of 3,050 - had gastrointestinal illnesses such as diarrhea, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on its website. Fifty of the 1,165 crew members also were sick, said the CDC, who sent officials on the ship yesterday in the Virgin Islands to assess the situation.

The illness is the “stomach flu,” chairman and chief executive officer Richard Fain said in a phone interview. “This is something everyone, everywhere deals with every winter.”

The company hasn’t decided how to compensate sick passengers or those who had their trip cut short, Fain said. The incident will have “no sustainable impact” on the company’s finances.

The ship left Cape Liberty, New Jersey, on Jan 21 for a 10-day cruise in the Caribbean and now will return Jan 29. Royal Caribbean said the ship, once home, will undergo a thorough sanitisation, its third since the outbreak began.

“The right thing to do is to bring our guests home early, and use the extra time to sanitise the ship even more thoroughly,” the Miami-based company said yesterday in a statement. “Our doctors tell us symptoms are consistent with that of norovirus, but that they are awaiting the results of tests to confirm that diagnosis.”

Bernadette Burden, a CDC spokeswoman, said agency personnel were meeting with the ship’s crew and medical staff in St. Thomas to get an updated case count, as well as review and validate the initial reports of sickness.

“This isn’t an unusual occurrence,” Burden said in a telephone interview. “We often meet up with cruise ships in mid-voyage.”

Last year, at least nine vessels - including ships operated by Royal Caribbean’s Celebrity Cruise line and Carnival Corp.’s Princess Cruises - were struck by illness outbreaks, according to the CDC. Seven were caused by the norovirus.

The norovirus can be spread from an infected person to food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces. It causes the stomach or intestines, or both, to become inflamed, leading to pain, nausea and diarrhea, according to the CDC. The seven outbreaks reported in 2013 affected 1,238 passengers, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.

The company takes steps to stop the spread of the disease during outbreaks, such as having employees put food on guests plates at buffets to reduce the sharing of serving tongs, according to Rob Zeiger, a spokesman for the line. The company will take advantage of the two extra days at port to scrub every part of the ship, he said.

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