Cruise Ship Suffers Massive Gastrointestinal Outbreak for Third Cruise in a Row

March 15, 2010

Celebrity Cruises has announced it will cut short a cruise on Celebrity Mercury after hundreds of passengers have become infected with gastrointestinal illness. This latest outbreak marks the third consecutive voyage overwhelmed by an eruption of stomach bug.

Celebrity Cruises spokesperson Cynthia Martinez tells Cruise Critic that since the beginning of the sailing a total of 342 of 1,829 passengers -- or 18.7 percent -- have become ill. Cruise lines are required to issue a special notification to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when 2 percent or more of passengers or crew have reported symptoms of gastrointestinal illness.

"In an abundance of caution, and in order to prevent additional guests and crew from becoming ill, we have decided to bypass Celebrity Mercury's port of call today to Tortola, British Virgin Islands, and return to Charleston a day earlier than originally scheduled," says Celebrity in a statement. Celebrity Mercury will now arrive in Charleston, a port it currently calls home, early Thursday morning, a day earlier than originally scheduled.

CDC inspectors are currently sailing with the vessel, and according to Celebrity's statement, "an enhanced cleaning of the ship, all of which is being done in close coordination with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will continue until the ship arrives in Charleston."

In terms of compensation, passengers onboard Celebrity Mercury will receive an onboard credit in the amount of one day of the cruise fare paid for their sailing, as well as a future cruise certificate for 25 percent of the cruise fare paid. Any remaining onboard credit balance at the end of the cruise will be refunded to the guest.

Although health officials have provide no official cause of the most recent outbreak, Celebrity's statement said the outbreak was thought to be Norovirus, which encompasses group of viruses whose symptoms include nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.

The recent trio of outbreaks began with Celebrity Mercury's February 15 sailing, during which 411 out of 1,838 passengers were infected with what turned out to be Norovirus, according to the official report from the CDC. Celebrity Mercury's next sailing (February 26) departed a day late due to the need for extra sanitation -- and yet despite the thorough pre-cruise cleaning, 182 passengers became sick on that cruise. Health officials in South Carolina are pointing to a correlation between outbreaks onboard and an elevated number of outbreaks in the state this year.

And it's not just Celebrity that's struggled to contain the spread of disease during the last few months. On a recent cruise aboard Holland America's Maasdam, 168 of 1,211 passengers, or roughly 14 percent, came down with a gastrointestinal illness. In a highly unusual move from the line, passengers were offered the option of canceling their booking on the following sailing (the March 5 departure) for a full refund or alternative sailing date.

Norovirus is highly contagious and spreads rapidly wherever there are many people confined to a small area, like nursing homes, restaurants, hotels, dormitories ... and cruise ships. For more information, see our article on Norovirus - What You Need to Know.

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor