Royal Caribbean passengers and crew fell ill aboard the Explorer of the Seas over the course of the last five days, and the Center for Disease Control is hurrying to investigate the matter. Some 281 passengers and 22 crew, or 7 per cent of those aboard the cruise ship, started experiencing symptoms of a gastrointestinal illness halfway through a 10-day cruise from Cape Liberty, New Jersey to the beautiful tropical island of St. Maarten. It’s suspected that the passengers and crew are suffering from norovirus, a highly contagious illness whose symptoms include diarrhea and vomiting.
This is not the first time this month that Royal Caribbean has seen one of its cruise ships in trouble. The Majesty of the Seas saw 68 on board felled by norovirus, and had to return to port in Miami January 17.
While Explorer of the Seas skipped a scheduled landing in Haiti, a spokesperson for Royal Caribbean said those on board with symptoms of norovirus are responding well to over-the-counter medication and that sanitizing measures are currently in place. The cruise line has said the ship docked in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in order to undergo a thorough cleansing, and ramped up disinfection measures will continue to be in effect throughout the remainder of the voyage.
While Royal Caribbean passengers and crew fell ill, the cruise line set about the business of finding out why the outbreak occurred. A Vessel Sanitation Program officer and an epidemiologist from the Center for Disease Control are planning to board the ship in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands in order to launch an investigation as to what has caused such a widespread illness. Many samples are expected to be taken throughout the investigation to determine if norovirus is indeed the culprit of this gastrointestinal outbreak. The CDC personnel are expected to determine the cause of the outbreak and the cruise line’s response to it.
New crew members are also at the ready to join the ship mid-voyage in order to replace the 22 who have become sick. The cruise line has issued an apology for the disruption to the current cruise and has noted that those affected are improving.
Norovirus is a fast-spreading bug that is responsible for 21 million sicknesses and as many as 800 deaths annually. Of the 21 million sick, up to 71,000 hospitalizations may occur from the illness. It’s a virus that can be spread either through food, air or water and as a result, spreads very quickly.
It’s also a virus that has shown some evolution. There is a new norovirus called the GII 4 Sydney strain, and it’s not confirmed as yet whether the current outbreak on Explorer of the Seas can be blamed on that particular norovirus strain. GII 4 Sydney strain is the strain of norovirus that created havoc on the Queen Mary 2 during a December 2012 to January 2013 voyage, according to the CDC. That voyage, which lasted 12 days, saw 204 passengers and 16 crew affected by norovirus.
As the Royal Caribbean passengers and crew who fell ill set about the business of recovering from their illness, increased vigilance continues aboard Explorer of the Seas. There continues to be very specific hand washing protocols in place for passengers and crew to prevent the spread of the virus, and all surfaces continue to be cleaned vigorously.
By Christina St-Jean