A Princess cruise ship cited fog – not an outbreak of stomach virus – as the official reason for returning to a Houston-area port on Friday. More than 180 of the 3,104 passengers aboard the Caribbean Princess suffered from a gastrointestinal illness, apparently with highly contagious norovirus, USA reports, but officials insisted that a dense fog advisory was what promoted the ship’s early return.
On Tuesday, the crew announced the ship, which originally planned a last stop in Belize, would turn back due to a sea fog advisory that could close the ship’s port through the weekend. The National Weather Service says it issued a warning about sea fog from Friday through Sunday and The Port of Houston says pilots halt all docking activity if fog is too dense.
But passengers on the Caribbean Princess question officials’ version of the events.
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"The sentiment on the ship became more that it wasn't because of the possible fog," Doris Hajewski, 66, of Waukesha, Wis. told the Associate Press. Hajewski said that the crew announced on the second day of the cruise, a seven-day jaunt that would have taken passengers to Belize, that people had come down with the norovirus and that precautions were taken to make sure it didn’t spread. According to the Houston Chronicle, while the ship was still en route, ship employees implemented recommendations for preventing further infections and increased cleaning and disinfection.
The ship, which set sail Jan. 25, is the second cruise in a week to return to it’s home port in the wake of an outbreak of the disease more commonly known as the stomach flu, which causes diarrhea and vomiting. On Wednesday, Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas returned to port in Bayonne, N.J. after more than 20% of its passengers fell ill.
The outbreak on the Caribbean Princess was less widespread than on the Royal Caribbean, which was one of the largest to ever happen on a cruise ship. Still, any outbreak that affects more than 3% of passengers is required to be reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Officials with the CDC boarded the Caribbean Princess early Friday and are overseeing sanitation of the vessel before it departs for its next journey on Saturday. Crew will clean all surfaces of the ship - from elevator buttons to railings - with a special liquid disinfectant.
"Caribbean Princess has experienced an increase in the number of cases of gastroenteritis among passengers, which has been confirmed to be norovirus," reported that Princess Cruises said in a statement Thursday. "Because of the increased sensitivity surrounding norovirus by both cruise lines and the (CDC) in this winter season, we notified the CDC ...to ensure all appropriate measures are followed for an extensive sanitation of the ship prior to the next cruise departing February 1."
According to the CDC website, there are about a dozen cases annually where so many people become ill on a cruise, the vast majority with norovirus. This year there have already been three reported cases, including on the Caribbean Princess, and at least two appear to be due to that stomach virus. Overall, though, the CDC says only about 1 percent to 2 percent of norovirus outbreaks occur on ships. The vast majority of outbreaks are in nursing homes.
Cruise Lines International Association reports that more than 20 million people took cruises in 2012.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Sept. 1929: First-class passengers playing deck tennis aboard New Orient liner 'Orontes' during a cruise in the English Channel. (Puttnam /Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)