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Cruise ship with flu outbreak heads to Aruba

Aruba Swine Flu Cruise Ship
The cruise ship Ocean Dream sits at the dock, in Orangestad, on the Dutch Antilles island of Aruba, June 19.Pedro Famous Diaz / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Caribbean cruise spoiled by a swine flu outbreak ended amid a swarm of masked medical workers on Friday, and broader fears about the pandemic's spread in the region prompted cancellation of a 26-nation sports festival.

Helicopters buzzed overhead and Coast Guard boats flanked the Ocean Dream as passengers disembarked into a dockside terminal in Aruba, where nearly a dozen health officials shrouded in white clothes and wearing masks checked them for symptoms.

"You come back from a cruise, you're on vacation, and it feels like you're on a boat full of lepers," said Isabel Duque, 48, of Madrid.

Three crew members tested positive for the H1N1 influenza and 11 others showed symptoms during the voyage that started June 12 in Aruba.

That led port authorities in Grenada and Barbados to block the ship's scheduled stops and forced cancellation of a cruise that had been slated to start Friday aboard the ship, which has a capacity of 1,350 passengers.

The Dutch territory's Health Ministry said it was examining the roughly 400 returning passengers and an equal number of crew members as a precaution, though officials declined to say if tests had revealed new cases.

Swabs were taken from those who showed basic flu signs such as cough and fever. If a preliminary test comes back positive, officials said, the person will be kept under surveillance on the ship along with people with confirmed cases.

Passengers judged healthy will be driven to the airport, officials said. "The intention is for everyone to leave (the island) today," said Bibi Arends, director of the emergency management committee, adding that crew members will remain aboard.

The scramble to isolate a few confirmed cases of the disease showed the concern that the disease has roused among officials in a region that depends heavily on its reputation for carefree tourism.

Another Caribbean nation, Trinidad and Tobago, announced Friday it was canceling next month's inaugural Caribbean Games due to the risk swine flu could spread among athletes and supporters.

The 26-nation tournament was supposed to feature athletes such as Trinidad's Olympic silver-medal sprinter Richard Thompson and rising 400-meter runner Renny Quow, as well as Cuba's famed boxing team.

At least a dozen participants in a Trinidad volleyball tournament last week, including players from Trinidadian and Suriname, tested positive for H1N1 influenza.

The Ocean Dream's Spanish operator Pullmantur, a subsidiary of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., had to cancel a weeklong cruise scheduled to start on Friday and some 250 passengers booked on that trip have agreed to a weeklong vacation on the island instead, according to a company spokeswoman who spoke on condition of anonymity due to company rules.

Aruban authorities will not allow the ship to depart before Tuesday unless the World Health Organization clears it for travel, said Edison Briesen, transport and tourism minister.

The ship's next scheduled departure is June 26.

Duque said the strain of the flu crisis took a toll on the crew.

"Their mental state has changed," she said. "Their faces are not the same ... they don't have the joy they had at the beginning. These poor people seem like zombies."

Venezuelan authorities said 381 passengers, mostly Venezuelans but including 55 foreigners, got off the ship Wednesday night at Venezuela's Isla Margarita. The ship company said that was the final destination of the Venezuelans.

One Venezuelan and one Argentine among those disembarking showed possible swine flu symptoms and were separated from the others, Deputy Health Minister Nancy Perez told government television.

Pullmantur said in a statement that the crew members with flu "are suffering mild symptoms and are recovering as expected."

The company said the passengers, most from Spain and Latin America, would receive a partial refund.