Swine flu suspected in crew member on cruise ship

Serenade of the Seas worker isolated onboard ship; has completed a course of antiviral medication

Posted: Monday, May 11, 2009

ANCHORAGE - A crew member aboard a cruise ship in Alaska waters is recovering from what health officials suspect is swine flu.

Al Grillo / The Associated Press
Al Grillo / The Associated Press

The female crew member of the Serenade of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean ship, became ill May 2 while sailing from San Francisco northward. The woman was isolated two days later and was treated with antiviral medication, Dr. Jay Butler, Alaska's chief medical officer, said Sunday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified Alaska health officials over the weekend that there was a probable case of swine flu aboard the ship.

The ship on Sunday was in Icy Strait in Southeast Alaska for docking in Sitka. It stopped in Ketchikan and has stops in Juneau and Skagway as well as Prince Rupert and Victoria, British Columbia.

Testing was performed at the Washington State Public Health Laboratory and forwarded to the CDC. The CDC is in the process of validating the results, which were expected Monday.

In the meantime, the state conducted its own testing on a sample taken in Ketchikan when the ship docked there. That sample was sent Friday to the new virology lab at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and came back negative on Saturday.

Those results were not a surprise, Butler said, because the woman had already been three days on Tamiflu, an anti-viral medication effective against swine flu, and for several days had no fever.

On April 18, before embarking for Alaska, the Serenade of the Seas departed San Juan, Puerto Rico. During the 14-night Panama Canal voyage it visited Huatulco and Acapulco, Mexico.

On May 2, the ship departed San Francisco for a 14-night voyage to Southeast Alaska and Canada.

No other cases of suspected swine flu have been diagnosed aboard the ship.

Butler said the ship's medical staff followed strict isolation procedures to prevent the spread of the illness.

One other crew member was diagnosed with regular influenza on April 30 when the ship was in California. That person, a male crew member, was placed in isolation the next day, treated with medication and has recovered.

Butler said as long as passengers continue to feel well and have no symptoms there is no need to keep them from enjoying Alaska's ports of call.

"People who are well there is no need to restrict their movements," he said.

Dr. Bernd Jilly, laboratories chief for the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services, said testing for swine flu has kept state health officials very busy. The state laboratories in Anchorage and Fairbanks have received well over 1,000 samples for testing so far, he said. While some have tested positive for regular influenza, none have come back positive for swine flu, Jilly said.

Butler said the ship took appropriate precautions for controlling the spread of the infection.

"This is very reassuring news for Alaskans who might have come in contact with passengers and crew members who disembarked from the ship while it was in port," Butler said.

Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for Royal Caribbean International, said the ship followed procedures to screen all guests, crew members and ship visitors for flu-like symptoms before boarding. Hand sanitizers are placed throughout the ship.

The ship's voyage ends May 16 in Vancouver, Canada.

Butler said the case aboard the ship can't be considered Alaska's first case of swine flu for several reasons, including that the woman became ill before entering Alaska waters, is a non-Alaskan and the initial testing was conducted outside Alaska.

But, he said, the suspected case is a harbinger of what likely will be more cases for Alaska health officials.

"This is not just going to go away," Butler said.

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