April 2, 2003
The relatively rapid spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) has been garnering headlines, particularly for travelers headed to and from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Hanoi. Have the handful of cruise lines -- Seabourn, Crystal and Holland America --that have, in recent weeks, sailed Asian itineraries or are cruising there now, been impacted? According to the industry, the answer is a resounding no. Still, the International Council of Cruise Lines, an industry trade association, has issued a statement. "There have been no reports of SARS affecting cruise passengers. Nevertheless it is important to educate passengers and crew and remain vigilant. The ICCL is working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) quarantine office regarding SARS. The ICCL has distributed CDC's health alert notices to the cruise lines, alerting medical staff of symptoms to look for and information to distribute to crew and passengers for those traveling in affected regions. Cruise industry members are maintaining their extensive sanitation protocols, modifying itineraries to avoid locales where the illness is being experienced and screening guests and passengers." Cruise lines sailing in that region are taking different approaches. On Seabourn's Spirit, which just wrapped up a 14-day Hong Kong-to-Singapore itinerary, the ship kept passengers informed via its daily newspaper and, while on a port of call to Singapore, asked their travelers to avoid using medical facilities ashore. "If they scraped their knee," said spokesman Bruce Good, "we urged them to come back to the ship and use our medical facility." A World Health Organization (www.who.int/en) advisory was handed out to each passenger at debarkation. On Crystal Harmony, which is currently sailing Asian itineraries, a spokeswoman reports on a number of cruise line efforts to make people feel more comfortable -- not to mention healthy and safe. Folks who are, today, on a Yokohama to Beijing itinerary -- that debarks on Thursday -- and who are all slated to take part in a three night land program following their cruise, can bow out with no penalty; the cruise line has offered to rearrange flights home for those who want to leave directly from the ship. In addition, the ship changed schedule to arrive at the port of debarkation hours earlier in order to permit those travelers to make a 10 a.m. flight. Spokeswoman Mimi Weisband reports that just a dozen passengers have opted out of the land tour. Crystal Harmony is still on course for two other Beijing/Hong Kong itineraries this month. Crystal has offered leery passengers a no-penalty roll-over of their cruise fare if they want to choose a different voyage this year. Again, there were few takers. Otherwise, the cruise line is taking precautions that include daily updates to the ship¹s medical team and maintenance of the vigilant sanitation practices that have become regular protocol since last fall¹s industry-wide Norovirus outbreak. For instance, every passenger is handed an anti-bacterial wipe before coming on board after a day spent at a port-of-call. Onboard medical staff has set aside a few staterooms as isolation cabins though none have been necessary. "We've been staying on top of it," Weisband says, "and we'll continue to." SARS was first detected in Hanoi in late February and, since then, nearly 500 people have reported symptoms of the virus. Similar to flu, the main symptoms are high fever, dry cough, shortness of breath. According to the World Health Organization, "SARS may be associated with other symptoms, including headache, muscular stiffness, loss of appetite, malaise, confusion, rash and diarrhea." The WHO says that SARS is "not highly contagious when protective measures are used, and the percentage of cases that have been fatal is low." Beyond the Asian region, efforts to educate all travelers, including cruise passengers, continue. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that SARS information contained on CDC's health alert cards is being provided by the International Council of Cruise Lines to people traveling on cruise ships at U.S. ports. Inspectors also are boarding ships if a passenger or crew member has been reported with symptoms matching the case definition of SARS -- though no reports of such activities have been required at this point.