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Queasy Stomachs, Few Cancellations On Cruise Ships

Flu Not Unusual, Experts Say

Dec 3, 2002 | Washington Post No one, it seems, is better than the cruise lines at selling good times. They call out to millions of vacationers with dreamy, fantasyland images of couples holding hands on romantic getaways, sun-speckled seas and sumptuous buffets.

But, for weeks, the images here in the cruising mecca of South Florida have been decidedly less cheery: pukey guests shambling down gangplanks, tales of vomit-streaked elevators, charts dissecting the eerie-sounding Norwalk Virus, guys in face masks and rubber gloves spreading a glaze of chlorine.

Scary stuff. Or is it?

For all the dire pronouncements, for all the speculation about some sinister source behind an outbreak of flu-like symptoms that affected more than 1,000 people on three cruise ships, the cruising public has reacted with a collective yawn. They've boarded ships by the thousands, even though everyone from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the shipboard doctors can't explain why this is happening here and why it's happening now.

"That's the big question," said David Forney, chief of the CDC's vessel inspection program. "We'd love to say here's why but we can't."

The latest ship to suffer an outbreak the Carnival Cruise Line's Fascination, which returned to port from a three-day cruise this morning with 200 sick passengers and crew returned to sea this evening. Less than 4 percent of the ship's 1,056 passengers took the company up on its offer to refund the cost of their tickets, an option usually available only to those who buy travel insurance to cover last-minute health emergencies. The cancellation rate was higher than normal, but far from a stampede to the exits. The day before, another stricken ship Holland America's Amsterdam, which got a 10-day scrubbing had only two cancellations out of 1,261 scheduled passengers.

Masterful handling of public relations by top cruise line executives, who frankly admitted they had a problem and quickly told the world what they planned to do about it, kept the situation from turning into a profit-evaporating crisis, business experts say.

"They're very astute business people," said Cheryl M. Carter, a professor in the School of Hospitality Management at Florida International University, who specializes in the cruise industry. "It's a blip. In the end, it may be something that gives people more confidence in the industry because they're seeing the processes built in for safety."

Carnival did not leave the explaining to a spokesman. It marched out the company president, Bob Dickinson, to talk about sanitizing the ship to remove what investigators believe -- but have yet to confirm -- was an outbreak of the Norwalk virus.

Dickinson, a 30-year cruise industry veteran, delivered a calming message, saying Norwalk is passed from person to person and that an infected person most likely brought the virus on board. He addressed safety protocols that require the company to report Norwalk outbreaks affecting more than 1 percent of passengers, and begin sanitizing. He even announced that his company would consider tinkering with a hallowed cruise ship institution the horizonless buffet if it is shown to have played a role in spreading the virus.

Dickinson only got riled when reporters implied that his company might in some way be responsible.

"I resent that implication," he said, his face reddening. "I will not allow that implication to be drawn on my watch."

He did not bother to get mad when asked about cruise ship passengers who have complained in broadcast interviews about vomit in elevators and a shortage of blankets on the ships.

"People are looking for their 15 minutes of fame; there is a tendency to embellish," he said. "Some of the things I've been hearing on the air, you'd think there was a terminal illness."

Public relations prowess aside, this has not been an easy time for the cruise industry. The day before the Fascination arrived in Miami, another ship the Wind Song, owned by a subsidiary of Holland America caught fire 10 miles off the coast of French Polynesia and all 219 people onboard had to be evacuated. No passengers or crew were hurt. Another Carnival ship the Holiday ran aground on a sandbar last week off the Yucatan Peninsula, forcing the company to fly 2,000 passengers back to New Orleans.

But the virus outbreak in Florida is what seems to have captured imaginations, occupying the company at a time when it would normally be preparing for the peak cruising season that starts in mid-December and runs through April, the most important months for an industry that last year carried 6.9 million passengers to sea.

Dickinson's vigorously stated assessment that the virus is not being caused by his company has been bolstered by statements from health officials in Florida, who describe Norwalk, which can cause diarrhea and uncontrollable vomiting, as a seasonal virus.

"We've already seen some [cases] in Florida " Steven Wiersma, the state epidemiologist, told the Associated Press. "This is not just a cruise ship issue."

Dickinson argued that the public hears about outbreaks on cruise ships because everyone who gets sick is contained in one place. There is no way to track an outbreak affecting airline passengers, for instance, because they're onboard for shorter periods of time, he said.

The outbreak in South Florida's cruise industry began last month when 454 passengers and crew became sick on two voyages aboard the Amsterdam, which left from a port in Fort Lauderdale. Then last Wednesday, Disney Cruise Line canceled a scheduled trip by the Disney Magic because 450 people contracted the virus. It spread south to Miami today when the Fascination pulled in to port.

The cluster of sick passengers captured headlines and topped newscasts. But, Forney the CDC cruise ship inspection chief, was unimpressed. Just last summer, he said, there was a similar outbreak when hundreds of passengers were reported sick with the virus on cruises to Alaska from Seattle and Vancouver. There also was an outbreak last summer in a string of Canadian hotels, trains and office buildings, he said.

The virus, Forney said, goes wherever infected people take it.

"If you've been saving up for the cruise of a lifetime and you get sick, what are you going to do?" Forney said. "You'd run to the drugstore and you'd say, just don't make me laugh."

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