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October 22, 2014

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Illness-stricken cruise ship being sanitized as it heads for home

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Thomas Layer / AP

The Royal Caribbean International’s Explorer of the Seas is docked at Charlotte Amalie Harbor in St. Thomas, U. S. Virgin Islands, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014. U.S. health officials boarded the cruise liner to investigate an illness outbreak that hit at least 300 people with gastrointestinal symptoms including vomiting and diarrhea.

KINGSTON, Jamaica — The Royal Caribbean cruise line on Sunday ended a ship's 10-day trip in the Caribbean early after hundreds of passengers and crew members were sickened with a gastrointestinal illness.

The Miami-based company made the announcement a few hours after officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention boarded the Explorer of the Seas during its U.S. Virgin Islands port call to investigate the illness and evaluate the outbreak response.

"New reports of illness have decreased day-over-day, and many guests are again up and about. Nevertheless, the disruptions caused by the early wave of illness means that we were unable to deliver the vacation our guests were expecting," Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. said in a statement.

The decision to end the trip came after consultation between CDC officials and members of the cruise line's medical team, the company said.

The CDC said early Monday that 577 of the 3,050 passengers aboard the 15-deck ship reported getting sick during the cruise that left Bayonne, New Jersey, on Tuesday. Forty-nine crew members also reported feeling ill, according to Bernadette Burden, a spokeswoman for the CDC. She said the CDC team will remain on board the ship until the vessel returns to the United States later this week.

Tests would have to confirm what caused the outbreak, but fast-spreading norovirus is often to blame for similar symptoms sweeping closed quarters like those on cruise ships.

Royal Caribbean said special cleaning products and disinfectants proven to kill norovirus were being used to clean ship before it returned to the U.S. It said a full sanitization program would be carried out after the Explorer of the Seas reached its home port Wednesday.

Janet Diaz, a company spokeswoman, said CDC representatives boarded the Explorer of the Seas during the afternoon when it docked in St. Thomas, the main island of the U.S. Virgin Islands. During the previous port call in Puerto Rico, the ship underwent "extensive and thorough sanitizing" to help prevent more people from getting sick, she said.

Passengers and crew who fell ill have "responded well to over-the-counter medication being administered onboard the ship," Diaz said.

On Friday, an Explorer of the Seas passenger named Arnee Dodd tweeted that she had fallen ill aboard the ship and was quarantined with the other sick people. The Connecticut woman wrote that ship employees "put a lock down on food & are constantly cleaning everything."

Royal Caribbean said it was "taking several steps" to compensate passengers for the shortened trip. It also sought to assure customers scheduled for the ship's next voyage that "all possible measures will have been taken to prevent further problems."

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