(5:45 p.m. EDT) -- Transocean Tours has confirmed that Marco Polo, hit hard this week by gastric illness suspected to be caused by Norovirus, will end its cruise early. The voyage has been terminated at Invergordon, where the ship has been docked since yesterday; it began at London Tilbury on Saturday and was scheduled to visit seven ports on a 10-night British Isles cruise.
According to a statement from the German company, the decision to halt the voyage was made after consultation with NHS Highland, a Scottish health care group that has been dispatching doctors and nurses to the ship to help care for stricken passengers.
Arrangements are being made for all passengers who are fit to travel to disembark and head home as soon as possible, according to the statement. Those passengers who have been advised by doctors not to travel at this time will remain onboard for continued care and will return home once fully recovered.
U.K. news outlet The Press Association reports that some 340 passengers are now showing symptoms -- a staggering 44 percent of the 769 onboard; 40 crewmembers have also fallen ill. Five passengers were hospitalized with severe symptoms.
It is highly unusual for this many passengers to become sick with gastrointestinal illness during a cruise ship outbreak. For example, most of the outbreak summaries maintained by Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which monitors ships that call on U.S. ports, involve less than 10 percent of guests.
In this case, the cause of the outbreak is yet to be determined. In a post on our message boards yesterday, Cruise Critic member Essiesmom does postulate another possibility: food poisoning.
Transocean is advising U.K.-based family members with questions to contact its U.K.-based general sales agent, Cruise and Maritime Services International Ltd in Dartford, Kent, on 0845 430 0274 or 07894 478 969 outside office hours. We'll keep you posted.
--by Melissa Baldwin Paloti, Managing Editor