By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) – A Church of Scientology cruise ship quarantined by the Caribbean nation of St. Lucia for measles is due to arrive on Saturday back at its home port on the island of Curacao, where it will face similar restrictions, a top health official there said.
A team of health officers in Curacao plans to board the vessel to determine who aboard may have been exposed to a crew member diagnosed with measles and who aboard has previously been vaccinated against the highly contagious disease, the official said.
Dr. Izzy Gerstenbluth, chief epidemiologist for the Curacao Biomedical and Health Research Institute, said passengers and crew who can prove they were already vaccinated or have had measles in the past would likely be free to disembark “and go about their business.”
Others would likely be restricted from leaving the vessel for the duration of the incubation period – the time during which they could potentially transmit the disease to others, he told Reuters by telephone.
“What we don’t want is for the disease to spread further,” Gerstenbluth said. “There is no other way than … by not allowing anyone who may be infected off the ship.”
Incubation can last up to 21 days after exposure, with infected individuals most contagious from four days before the onset of tell-tale measles rash – while the person is experiencing cold-like symptoms – to four days after the rash appears.
Gerstenbluth said the infected crew member had traveled to Europe and rejoined the ship on April 17, then reported feeling ill on April 22. She remained on the vessel after a blood sample taken several days later came back positive for measles, by which time the ship was already en route to St. Lucia.
Health authorities placed the ship under quarantine after its arrival there on April 30, barring anyone from disembarking. St. Lucia also was reported to have furnished 100 doses of measles vaccine to the vessel before it departed on Thursday for Curacao.
A total of 318 passengers and crew are believed to be aboard the ship, a Panamanian-flagged cruise liner identified by maritime-tracking records as SMV Freewinds, the name of the 440-foot ship owned and operated by the Church of Scientology.
The church, on its website, describes Freewinds as a floating “religious retreat ministering the most advanced level of spiritual counseling in the Scientology religion.”
It says the boat is based in Curacao, an island once part of the Dutch Antilles north of Venezuela and now an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Scientology officials have not responded to requests for comment.
Although the measles-infected crew member has supposedly been restricted to her cabin since diagnosed, the relatively confined interior of a cruise ship and highly communicable nature of the virus – it can linger in an enclosed space for two hours – raises the risk of exposure to others who lack immunity, Gerstenbluth said.
The quarantine comes amid a worldwide resurgence of measles blamed by public health officials on declining inoculation rates in some populations due to misinformation about the safety of the vaccine.
The number of measles cases in the United States alone in recent months has climbed to more than 700 this week, a 25-year peak. Health authorities in Los Angeles last month ordered quarantines on two university campuses after each one had reported at least one confirmed case.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)