Celebrity Cruise's outbreaks part of a major spike in onboard stomach illnesses

Celebrity Cruise's Mercury finally left the port at Charleston, S.C. this week after three days of intensive cleaning. The scrubbing aimed to rid the ship of any traces of the intestinal illness that has hit more than 1,000 passengers over three consecutive sailings.

The three-day cleaning required 50 additional crew, who sprayed down each of the ship's state rooms from top to bottom with high-powered spray guns, and cleaned all the carpets aboard, according to the company's CEO Daniel Hanrahan. The cleaning failed to reassure many jittery travelers, who canceled their plans. Those who did board for ports of call in Florida, Mexico, Belize and the Bahamas were served in their seats, rather than allowed to visit the buffet, which remained closed.
Outbreaks like those on the Mercury have occurred much more frequently this year. In the first three months of 2010, there has been a 50% increase year over year in the number of ships reporting passengers infected with gastrointestinal illnesses, according to federal statistics.

Enough passengers complained of vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, or other problems, associated with stomach bugs on nine voyages so far this year to trigger a requirement that the outbreak be reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This compares with six such outbreaks on ships for the first three months of last year.

As if that weren't enough to cause concern among cruising enthusiasts, the number of passengers aboard each vessel who experienced symptoms also increased markedly this year--in some cases three times the number of travelers affected in 2009, according to statistics kept by the CDC. In the case of Celebrity Cruises' Mercury, one in five of the 1,833 people aboard the vessel during the week of Feb. 15 to Feb. 25 reported gastrointestinal difficulties, while one in ten reported problems on a Feb. 26 to March 8 Mercury voyage and one out of five again on a trip from March 8 to March 19.

Federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control, who are charged with implementing a 30-year-old voluntary program to keep cruise ships free of highly-contagious infectious diseases, attributed the outbreaks to an increase in stomach bugs--known in medical parlance as noroviruses--in society as a whole. "Cases of norovirus have increased in many areas of the general population, usually in areas where large groups of people gather including college campuses, elder care facilities and camp sites in the U.S. and abroad," said Jay Dempsey, health communication specialist for the CDC.

Celebrity Cruises CEO Hanrahan called the Mercury's stomach bug outbreaks "an anomaly" and attributed an uptick in such viruses in part to a more aggressive reporting system that better tracks the spread of such illnesses. ]

Even so, the large increases in stomach bug outbreaks on cruise lines this year prompted many lines to offer passengers the option to rebook their journey, or to accept a full refund. When about one in 10 passengers aboard Holland America's ms Maasdam reported stomach problems during a two-week cruise through the Panama Canal earlier this year, the cruise line wasted no time in offering compensation. Celebrity Cruises also gave passengers the option of canceling this week's cruise aboard the Mercury and receiving a full refund, plus a 15% credit toward a future voyage.

Cruising is the fastest-growing category in leisure travel, according to the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, an industry trade group, which charted a record number of passengers in 2009.

The billion-dollar industry is obviously concerned about recent reports of stomach bug outbreaks and pictures of workers suited up in haz-mat gear and rubber gloves. Outbreaks on back-to-back voyages on Cunard's Queen Victoria in January that sickened hundreds of passengers were so worrisome that the company considered blocking the ship's arrival in New York from Southampton, England.

As spring break approaches and with it one of the most popular cruising periods of the year, CDC officials said that cruise lines are responsible for taking steps to ensure these illnesses don't threaten passengers. "It is ultimately the cruise ship who must ensure that strong public health practices are applied in all their departments at all times," wrote the CDC's Dempsey.
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