Virus fears rise after Cambodia's acceptance of cruise ship

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Passengers stand on the top deck of the MS Westerdam while the cruise ship is docked in Sihanoukville, Cambodia Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. The feel-good story of how Cambodia allowed a cruise ship to dock after it was turned away elsewhere in Asia for fear of spreading the deadly virus that began in China has taken a dark turn after a passenger released from the ship tested positive for the virus. (AP Photo)

PHNOM PENH – The feel-good story of how Cambodia allowed a cruise ship to dock after it was turned away elsewhere in Asia for fear of spreading a new disease took an unfortunate turn after a passenger later tested positive for the virus.

News over the weekend that an 83-year-old American woman who was on the ship and flew from Cambodia to Malaysia was found to be carrying the virus froze further movement of the passengers and crew of the Westerdam. Some are in hotels in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, while others are still aboard the ship.

The American woman was among several hundred passengers who were flown out of Cambodia on Friday and Saturday. According to authorities in Malaysia, 143 continued their flights home from that country, while the woman and her 84-year-old husband, who was diagnosed with pneumonia, remained behind for treatment.

The dispersal around the world of passengers from the ship with possible exposure to the new coronavirus has sparked concern.

"I think now given that there is a confirmed case that is suspected to have acquired infection on board the ship, the other passengers should be asked to quarantine themselves at home and alert health authorities if they develop fever or respiratory symptoms within the 14 days since disembarkation," said Professor Benjamin Cowling from the School of Public Health at Hong Kong University.

Dr. Gagandeep Kang, executive director of India's Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, said it is unclear whether the woman's infection would result in an outbreak in another part of the world. The virus that causes the disease named COVID-19 has been confirmed in about two dozen countries, with most cases concentrated in China, where it emerged in December.

"We will have to wait and see," she said, adding that it would depend on where the woman got the infection, and at what stage of the infection she was in while in contact with other people.

The ship's operator, Holland America Line, said in a statement Monday that Cambodian health officials were on the ship testing the 255 guests and 747 crew who were awaiting clearance, and that guests currently staying at a Phnom Penh hotel had all been tested.