620 Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas Passengers Ill

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Atlanta, GA: US health officials are reporting that over 620 passengers on board a Royal Caribbean cruise ship are now ill with a highly contagious stomach bug, believed to be Norovirus but that remains unconfirmed. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention says 577 passengers and 49 crew members are sick. The ship is carrying 3,050 passengers and 1,165 crew.

Health officials will reportedly remain onboard the Explorer of the Seas until it returns to port in New Jersey later this week, so they can monitor the situation, and isolate the cause of the illness.

Norovirus is among the most common causes of illness in the US and spreads very quickly and easily, especially in an environment such as a cruise ship. "Our team is on the ship and will stay on board until it returns to New Jersey,"said Bernadette Burden, a spokeswoman for the CDC told NBCnews. The cruise ship was scheduled for a 10-day cruise starting at Cape Liberty, N.J., however it made port on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten after passengers began falling ill with symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea, classic symptoms of norovirus.

The Explorer of the Seas is now scheduled to return to home port on Wednesday, cutting the cruise short. "After returning to home port on Wednesday, January 29, we will perform a thorough 'barrier' sanitization program on the entire ship to make certain that any remaining traces of the illness are eliminated,"the company said in a statement. The CDC notes that norovirus is difficult to clean up, and recommends the use of chlorine bleach or another certified disinfectant.

"It will be the third aggressive sanitizing procedure the ship has undertaken since we became aware of the issue, and will additionally provide a window of more than 24 hours where there are no persons aboard the ship, which is a significant help."

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