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Cruisers Try To Focus On Fun, Not Virus

Dec 3, 2002 | AP

Passengers aboard the Carnival cruise ship Fascination were trying to focus on anything but a virus outbreak that sickened nearly 200 passengers on the same vessel over the weekend.

It wasn't easy.

"Everybody's treating it pretty much the same way," passenger David Martinez said in a cell phone interview from the ship early Tuesday. "Everybody's taking precautions about touching things and being careful, but everybody's trying to make jokes about it, too."

The ship departed from the Port of Miami around 7 p.m. Monday, destined for a Tuesday morning stop in Key West, Florida, and a Wednesday docking in Cozumel, Mexico.

Ship officials told passengers details of the presumed Norwalk-like virus outbreak that plagued the Fascination's three-day trip to the Bahamas. But there was little information about the precautions taken to avoid similar problems on this sail, Martinez said.

There were no reports of passengers on the current Fascination trip falling ill during the first few hours of the voyage. The ship's infirmary was empty early Tuesday and vacationers were fairly relaxed, said Martinez, a 22-year-old first-time cruise patron from Santa Barbara, California.

"Nobody's heard of anybody being sick at all," said Martinez, who works for a Budweiser distribution company.

When the Fascination returned from its trip to the Bahamas early Monday, it carried 190 passengers and four crew members who suffered from vomiting and diarrhea, Carnival Corp. spokesman Tim Gallagher said.

Experts had not confirmed whether they had a Norwalk-like virus, Gallagher said. The viruses have plagued more than 1,000 people on other cruise ships in the past few months, including Holland America Line's Amsterdam and Disney Cruise Line's Magic, causing those companies to cancel one sailing each to thoroughly disinfect the ships.

Carnival employees sterilized the Fascination before it set sail Monday.

Officials of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention oversaw a quick cleaning of the 855-foot Fascination before it departed for the Caribbean. The CDC was expected to continually monitor the overall health of passengers on the current voyage.

The number of gastrointestinal illnesses on cruise ships has declined since 1990, CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden said Monday, although she said the CDC does not have exact numbers.

CDC experts obtained lab samples from the Fascination and its passengers to determine the nature of the outbreak; test results were expected within five days.

Carnival Corp. president Bob Dickinson said completely preventing any passenger from developing symptoms of the Norwalk-like virus would be impossible.

"You cannot prevent this disease," Dickinson said. "The Centers for Disease Control (and) the U.S. public health service has no known method or protocol for the prevention of this disease."

Martinez said he and his girlfriend considered backing out of the trip, but decided to go ahead with their plans since they had flown across the country to take the vacation. Many other passengers were leery and concerned before the ship departed.

"I'm a little apprehensive but I'm here to have a good time," said Canadian tourist Don Taylor, 34, who stood on the Fascination's deck as the ship headed out to sea.

Even the roulette wheels and casino chips were cleaned with chlorine solution.

The Norwalk virus, named for an outbreak 30 years ago in Norwalk, Ohio, and a group of Norwalk-like viruses are among several common micro-organisms that can cause diarrhea, stomach pain and vomiting for 24 to 48 hours, according to the CDC. They are spread through food and water and close contact with infected people or things they have touched. The incubation period is about two to three days.

The illness is seasonal, peaking in the colder months, and is not uncommon, said Dr. Steven Wiersma, the state epidemiologist.

"We've already seen some (cases) in Florida this is not just a cruise ship issue," he said.

There were no reports Monday of any illness aboard Holland America's Amsterdam. The Amsterdam, which was held at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale for 10 days to be disinfected, departed on a 10-day Caribbean cruise Sunday with 1,261 passengers.

Holland America Line Inc. also is owned by the Miami-based Carnival Corp.

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