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US officials investigate illness outbreak that has stricken 300 on Caribbean cruise ship

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KINGSTON, Jamaica - U.S. health officials on Sunday boarded 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.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that 281, or nearly 10 per cent, of the 3,050 passengers aboard Royal Caribbean International's Explorer of the Seas have reported getting sick during a Caribbean cruise that left Cape Liberty, New Jersey, on Tuesday. Twenty-two crew members also reported feeling ill.

Company spokeswoman Janet Diaz said CDC representatives boarded the towering, 15-deck ship on Sunday afternoon as it made 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 - were expected to do the 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 Royal Caribbean 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.

Fast-spreading norovirus is often to blame for similar symptoms sweeping closed quarters like those on cruise ships, but a determination will likely have to wait until samples are tested in a lab. Symptoms of norovirus include vomiting and diarrhea, which is what the Explorer of the Seas passengers and crew have reported. Diaz said special cleaning products and disinfectants that are proven to kill norovirus are being used to clean the ship.

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. The ship's next scheduled stop is the Dutch Caribbean country of St. Maarten.

___

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

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