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US officials probe illnesses on Caribbean cruise

Associated Press Updated: January 26, 2014 at 2:04 pm

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — U.S. health officials will board a cruise ship docked in the U.S. Virgin Islands to investigate an illness outbreak that has stricken at least 300 people with gastrointestinal symptoms including vomiting and diarrhea, a cruise company spokeswoman said Sunday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that 281, or nearly 10 percent, of the 3,050 passengers aboard Royal Caribbean International's Explorer of the Seas have reported getting sick. Twenty-two 22 crew members also report feeling ill.

In a Sunday morning statement, company spokeswoman Janet Diaz said CDC officials are expected to soon board the towering, 15-deck ship making a port call in St. Thomas, the main island of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

At least two CDC officials - an epidemiologist and an environmental health officer - are expected to do an investigation and evaluate the outbreak response on the cruise liner. The U.S. health agency did not immediately respond to a Sunday email and a call seeking comment about the work aboard the ship.

During the previous port call in Puerto Rico, the ship underwent "extensive and thorough sanitizing" to help prevent more people from getting sick, said the spokeswoman. It bypassed a scheduled stop to the company's fenced-in beach destination in northern Haiti to sail directly to Puerto Rico's capital.

"This was a difficult decision to make; however, we feel it is best to make this itinerary modification to help prevent any more guests from becoming ill," Diaz said.

Meanwhile, the passengers and crew who fell ill have "responded well to over-the-counter medication being administered onboard the ship," she said.

Symptoms of norovirus include vomiting and diarrhea, which is what the cruise ship passengers have reported. It spreads quickly in close quarters and is known for afflicting schools and cruise ships. Diaz said special cleaning products and disinfectants that are proven to kill norovirus are being used to clean the Explorer of the Seas.

In a Sunday statement, Beverly Nicholson-Doty, the U.S. Virgin Islands' tourism commissioner, said the territory was grateful for the "CDC's quick response" and St. Thomas was ready to welcome ship passengers cleared to disembark.

On Friday, an Explorer of the Seas passenger named Arnee Dodd tweeted that she had fallen ill aboard the ship and was quarantined with the other sick people. The Connecticut woman wrote that ship employees "put a lock down on food & are constantly cleaning everything."

It was not immediately clear how many passengers, if any, were still being quarantined on Sunday.

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David McFadden on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dmcfadd

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