99 sick following Carnival ship's cruise

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on March 2, 2005.

When Dean Adams walked onto the Carnival Cruise Lines ship Celebration, the smell of raw sewage, he said, hit him almost immediately.

When he walked off the ship five days later, Adams and his wife had to support each other down the gangway: The couple and their daughter had spent most of the trip vomiting.

"We paid $3,000 to go down there and get as sick as a dog," said Adams, a resident of North Wilkesboro, N.C., who was on his first cruise. "We saved up for two years so we could do this together."

Adams was one of the 99 passengers and crew members who reported gastrointestinal problems, including stomach aches and diarrhea, during a cruise from Jacksonville to the Bahamas that ended Saturday.

"It was miserable," said Johnny Hutchens, another passenger from North Carolina on the cruise. "I had to almost physically carry my wife off. She had an upchuck bag in her hand."

It was the second cruise in a row during which the Celebration reported an "elevated number" of ill passengers. During the cruise that ended Feb. 21, 89 passengers and 35 crew members -- more than 5 percent of both -- were ill, with the predominant symptoms being vomiting and diarrhea.

The passengers on the cruise following that one, including the Adamses and Hutchenses, boarded the ship later than scheduled, after the cruise line told them the crew was spending extra time sanitizing the ship.

The culprit is most likely a norovirus, an easily transmitted disease that is common, especially in the winter. Across the industry, cruise ships particularly battle the virus, because the large number of people isolated together on a ship provides a perfect breeding ground.

Since January, cruise ships have reported about 1,300 cases of stomach illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversees sanitation programs on cruise ships, is analyzing samples taken from the passengers on the most recent Celebration cruise to determine if the disease is a norovirus, but the cruise line assumes that's the cause.

"We have been undertaking very aggressive cleaning and sanitation activities to mitigate the spread of the disease," said Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for Miami-based Carnival. "Once norovirus gets into a facility -- whether it's a ship or a land-based structure -- it can spread very easily through common surfaces and person to person. But if we act very quickly and aggressively, we can be successful in limiting its spread."

The Celebration has been offering four- and five-day cruises from Jacksonville to the Bahamas since October, when it moved here from Galveston, Texas. The ship was in dry dock in the Bahamas in early February for maintenance.

The only other time in its history that the ship had a outbreak of gastrointestinal problems which the CDC considered significant -- more than 2 percent of passengers or crew -- was before the move, when a norovirus infection affected an "unusual number" of passengers just over a year ago, when the ship was two days out of its Texas port.

On that trip, about 300 passengers -- 19 percent of those on board -- came down with the disease. Special reports were submitted to the Centers for Disease Control following that trip, and no significant levels of illnesses were reported.

The Celebration has been reporting any stomach complaints to the Centers for Disease Control on a daily basis since it left on its most recent cruise from Jacksonville, which runs from Saturday to Thursday. Over the past four days, the ship has reported only 15 complaints -- 13 from passengers and two from crew members -- out of the 2,273 passengers and crew.

"We've been very fortunate and successful in our cleaning protocol," de la Cruz said.

The apparently successful attempt to get rid of the disease doesn't mean much, however, to those who were struck by it on the recent cruises.

"They offered us a 10 percent discount if we go back again," said Adams, who said he and his daughter are still vomiting. "I would never go on the Celebration again."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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