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Deaths in Dominican Republic may be a ‘mysterious’ trend. For now it looks like a media invention.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2019-06-20 Rachelle Krygier, Eli Rosenberg, Anthony Faiola
a crowded beach next to a body of water: Punta Cana. © F. Schneider/F. Schneider/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images Punta Cana.

PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic — For weeks, news media in the United States and beyond have painstakingly chronicled the horrifying stories of Americans who have died at resorts in the Dominican Republic. 

There was the 78-year-old man who died with fluid in his lungs a day after he was reported to have been vomiting at his hotel; the 53-year-old woman who was found unresponsive in her room, dead after a heart attack, local authorities said; a 67-year-old who died on a trip for his stepson’s wedding; a 55-year-old man whose family said perished from heart and respiratory issues last week.

Stories about the deaths of 11 American tourists over the past year have been trickling out one by one — on local outlets, in international tabloids such as the New York Post and the Daily Mail, and digital juggernauts including Fox News Channel and NBC.

The stories are starting to link the deaths, characterizing them as “mysterious,” “strange” and “suspicious,” and painting the Caribbean island nation — where tourism is the leading industry — as a place where something nefarious might be lurking amid the pools, beaches and palm trees.

But there’s a problem: There are no signs that’s actually the case. There’s not even evidence that the spate of death and illness in the Dominican Republic this year is out of the ordinary.

As the coverage seemed to reach a fever pitch this week, the U.S. State Department said it has seen no spike in deaths reported from the Dominican Republic. 

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The FBI is looking into at least three of the cases: those of Miranda Schaup-Werner, a 41-year-old psychotherapist who died at a hotel on May 25, and Nathaniel Edward Holmes and Cynthia Ann Day, a couple from Maryland who were found in their room at a neighboring resort several days later, a State Department official said. Toxicology results in those cases are expected within 30 days. 

The Maryland couple was found to have died with fluid in their lungs, according to the Dominican Republic’s national police, but details about Schaup-Werner’s death have been harder to pin down. Officials have given conflicting statements to media outlets, but have declined to comment recently citing the pending investigation.

A family spokesman said Schaup-Werner became ill after drinking from her room’s minibar, which touched off a round of unverified speculation about whether tainted alcohol is to blame for the cluster of deaths.

The New York Post even sent a reporter to one of the resorts to smell some of the alcohol, and noted that “the vodka had a strange, potent smell resembling pure alcohol.”

The State Department official said the FBI was considering toxic alcohol among its lines of inquiry in the cases.

It would not be entirely unheard of.

Phil Sylvester, a travel-safety expert and a spokesman for World Nomads, a global travel insurance company based in Australia, said his company noted several issues he thinks were connected to toxic, homemade alcohol from Australian travelers in Bali a few years back.

But it is hard to glean verifiable data from a handful of cases that emerge in media reports.

About 2.7 million Americans visited the Dominican Republic last year, according to the State Department, which only publicly releases data about unnatural deaths, such as car crashes and drownings. It does not release information about deaths by natural causes, such as heart attacks or strokes, even though it compiles reports on all Americans who die abroad.

It is a matter of statistics that a certain number of travelers will experience serious illnesses, accidents and even death while traveling internationally.

“The death rate in the Dominican Republic is not any higher than death rate in the States, and heart attack and stroke are common causes of death,” the State Department official said. “It could look like more of a sensational story than it is.”

Rampant speculation in the media has caused frustration and concern in the Dominican Republic, where tourism accounts for about 22 percent of the economy, directly and indirectly.

The stories have coincided with other damaging reports, such as that of former Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who was shot in the back at a restaurant last week, and Tammy Lawrence-Daley, 51, of Delaware who has recently spoken about a vicious assault she says she suffered at another Dominican resort in January. The majority of these cases have occurred in Punta Cana, the island’s main resort area.

“We can see that many international media outlets are just going for it as news, just to get the headline and they are not really getting into what’s going on. . . . The caricatures have been made and some in media have done a lot of damage,” Luis José Chávez, the president of the Dominican Tourism Press Association, told The Washington Post. “The whole country is trying to get over this and gain back the image of what we really are.”

The State Department official noted that the Dominican Republic, just a few hours on a plane from many areas in the southern and eastern United States, might be a victim of its own success as an increasingly popular travel destination for Americans.

“The Dominican Republic is attractive to a fair amount of less-experienced travelers — there is a certain subset of people who their standard vacation might be Orlando, and now instead they go to Cancun [in Mexico] or Punta Cana,” the official said. “It seems almost like it’s home. But then anytime something happens down there, they might not be prepared to encounter a medical system that’s different in the States or a law-enforcement situation that’s different than the States.”

The media reports have had a cascading effect, leading to a flood of complaints from travelers who say they, too, have fallen ill while traveling in the Dominican Republic.

More than 600 online visitors to the website in the past few months posted symptoms including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, which they said they experienced in the Dominican Republic. It is an unusually high volume for the website, which collects mostly anonymous accounts of food poisoning, including at restaurants in the United States. The spike in posts came after the deaths of Holmes and Day, the Maryland couple, were reported, representatives told The Post, indicating that it could be an effect of increased news coverage.

Some news organizations, playing catch-up with social media, have broadened their coverage to report on cases of people who have merely gotten sick with food-poisoning-like symptoms in the country — a relatively common experience for anyone who has spent enough time abroad.

Travel insurance operators told The Post that they have been inundated with inquiries about how their coverage, which applies to misfortunes such as illness and injury, might work for those headed to the Dominican Republic.

Insurers know the cold statistical truth that lurks in the reams of travel data they amass.

Even trips to tropical paradises such as the Dominican Republic, a small subset of vacations will be marred by serious health issues and other tragedies.

“Ninety percent of the time, your holiday goes off without a hitch,” Sylvester, of World Nomads, told The Post, adding that of the other 10 percent who do file claims, the vast majority are for things such as a lost cellphone, a pair of sunglasses that flew overboard or minor health issue like a skin rash.

But about 2 out of 100 travelers who purchase insurance do experience more serious incidents — medical issues that appear while they are traveling that they weren’t aware of before, or accidents while in transit, particularly on motorcycles, Sylvester said.

“We’re wound up so tight, you unwind some time and you find out you’re not just stressed at work. You’re actually sick,” he said.

Robert Quigley, a cardiovascular surgeon and senior vice president of International SOS, which offers medical and travel security risk services to individuals and companies, said travelers experience health problems for a variety of reasons: They engage in activities they don’t normally do, take more risks, try new foods and drink more than usual, making people with preexisting conditions vulnerable to medical complications, he said.

But on a first glance, he said, the reported deaths in the Dominican Republic did seem to potentially indicate a cluster that was not entirely explainable by natural causes, noting that some of the victims were relatively young.

“It could raise some concern,” he said, “but until there’s forensic data, no conclusions can be made.”

Rosenberg reported from Washington. Lindsey Bever contributed to this report.

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