Update: Cruise Passenger Among Recent Legionnaire's Victims

December 22, 2009
Royal Caribbean Liberty of the Seas Cruise Ship

Update, 4:20 p.m. EST: We learned this week that Legionnaire's victim Tore Myhra was a past Royal Caribbean captain, having headed up Monarch of the Seas in the 90's. Do you remember Myhra? Share your stories here.

To date, there's still no confirmation on the source of the bacteria(s) that infected Myhra and others.

(December 18, 2:58 p.m. EST) -- A luxury hotel in Miami is embroiled in a mystery after three guests who stayed there in October contracted Legionnaire's disease, one of which has died -- and now it appears there is a cruise component to the story, too. Although the health department has not released the names of the hotel guests, Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez tells us a cruise passenger who became ill during a sailing -- and subsequently died -- was in fact one of the three that stayed at the new Epic Hotel, part of the Kimpton Hotels chain of boutique properties.

According to a statement from the cruise line, an unidentified guest on the October 24, 2009, sailing of Miami-based Liberty of the Seas developed legionellosis while on the cruise, and was transported to a hospital for treatment upon disembarkation (which indicates the hotel stay occurred before the cruise). The deceased passenger has been identified by the Miami Herald as English tourist Tore Myhra, 57, who died of Legionella pneumophila pneumonia on November 1 at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital.

The guest may have developed symptoms while onboard, but the ship does not appear to be the source of the bacteria. (According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, symptoms develop 2 to 14 days after exposure to legionellosis.) Royal Caribbean's statement reads: "Although we do not know the source of the guest's legionellosis, we have taken more than 90 different water samples from the ship over the past few months as part of our routine water testing program, and all those tests have come back negative regarding the bacteria that can cause the illness.

"Nevertheless, we are taking some precautionary steps onboard, which are being done in an abundance of caution, to maintain our high health standards, and as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These include special sanitizing of key areas onboard, including whirlpools and the H2O Zone. Like our guests, we take all health issues seriously." Indeed, Cruise Critic member cds62 posted on the Royal Caribbean forum last month that on the subsequent cruise, areas such as the H2O Zone and hot tubs were closed.

Here's where there's still confusion: The bacteria may not have come from the hotel, either. According to the Miami Herald, the deceased victim had the same strain of the disease as another Legionnaire's victim who had not stayed at the hotel -- though the hotel has not been ruled out as the cause in any of the three cases. Interestingly, the Miami Herald reports that a new water filtration system at the hotel was removing too much chlorine from the property's water, making it vulnerable to contamination.

A spokesperson for Kimpton tells us that the company continues to work very closely with the local health officials, but did not offer any more information about the investigation or whether any of the other afflicted guests were cruise-bound. (The Epic Hotel offers special packages to pre-cruise passengers departing from Miami.)

A spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade Health Department told us that no interviews are being granted today because the investigation is still ongoing, but that we'd be kept abreast of developments. A CDC spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Legionnaires' bacteria, according to the CDC, "are found naturally in the environment, usually in water. The bacteria grow best in warm water, like the kind found in hot tubs, cooling towers, hot water tanks, large plumbing systems, or parts of the air-conditioning systems of large buildings." People most at risk of getting sick from the bacteria are the elderly, smokers (or those who have a chronic lung disease), and those who have weak immune systems from diseases like cancer, diabetes or kidney failure. People who take drugs to suppress the immune system are also at higher risk. The pneumonia-like infection can cause death in 5 to 30 percent of cases though most can be treated successfully with antibiotics.

In 2007, Legionnaire's was confirmed among passengers who fell ill on Fred. Olsen's Black Watch.
--by Melissa Paloti, Managing Editor