By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 1/12/2009 9:46:40 AM ET 2009-01-12T14:46:40

Adventurous senior citizens Fred and Willa Kubasta were excited when they booked their South American dream cruise on Holland America Line’s Amsterdam. The 38-day voyage leaving in March would sail from Buenos Aires to Seattle and visit numerous exotic ports of call along the way.

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But a few days after booking their vacation, the couple was surprised by their travel agent showing them a letter from Holland America saying the couple must receive yellow fever immunizations in order to be able to board the ship. Holland America’s letter insisted immunizations were required because the vessel visited Ecuador.

Willa Kubasta was perplexed.

“We cruised from Ecuador to Costa Rica last May on Princess Cruises and didn’t run into this problem,” she said. Kubasta was also angry with her travel agent for not advising the couple regarding the additional expenses of Brazilian visas and yellow fever immunizations — both items would tack an additional $400 to the cost of the trip.

“By not pointing out these requirements I was not given the option of whether or not I wanted to book under those conditions. I am now faced with having to eat my cruise deposit,” said Kubasta.

(A cruise deposit is required to secure space on a sailing. Holland America has a no-penalty cancellation period from 75 days before departure, but the Kubasta’s were past that point and faced losing their entire deposit that was well over $1,000.)

The couple was obligated to get the Brazilian visas, but the yellow fever shot was another story.

Yellow fever
According to the Centers for Disease Control, yellow fever is a viral disease that is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected mosquitoes. Illness ranges in severity from an influenza-like syndrome to severe hepatitis and hemorrhagic fever. The CDC has a list of countries where travelers are advised to get a yellow fever vaccine prior to visiting.

Still, the yellow fever vaccine carries risks that Willa Kubasta is all too familiar with. Her late husband nearly died from a grand mal seizure brought on by a reaction to the vaccine and she has had issues in the past with immunizations. Kubasta did a little digging and discovered that the CDC and the World Health Organization have guidelines on who should not take the vaccine. Both organizations do not recommend yellow fever shots for those over 60 years of age, pregnant women, nursing mothers and infants under 9 months.

Since she’s 75 and her husband is 76 she wonders why Holland America isn’t going by CDC and WHO guidelines.

It’s a good question, so I contacted Holland America on the couple’s behalf.

Holland America responds
I spoke with Sarah Scoltock, a Holland America representative. Scoltock says the cruise line is not contradicting WHO or CDC guidelines and that the company advises all of its guests of general vaccination requirements of the countries visited on their itineraries.

“We cannot issue individual vaccination requirements based on each guest’s specific age, medical condition or other factors. It is up to the guest to discuss the risks versus benefits of required vaccinations with his/her health provider,” she said.

Holland America’s policy states that if a physician concludes that a yellow fever vaccine should not be administered for medical reasons only, the traveler needs to get an exemption letter and bring it with them on the ship. The exemption letter must be signed and dated on the physician’s letterhead stationery and it should bear the stamp used by health department and official immunization centers to validate the International Certificate of Vaccine or Prophylaxis.

Reasons other than medical contraindications are not acceptable for exemption from vaccination. The traveler should be advised that issuance of a waiver does not guarantee that the destination country will accept it; on arrival at the destination the traveler may be faced with quarantine, refusal of entry or vaccination on site.

This is one case where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The Kubasta’s research and dogged pursuit in finding out the real facts went a long way toward keeping their health and their dream cruise hassle-free.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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