Minister: Tourism deaths in Dominican Republic not unusual

The Minister of Tourism of The Dominican Republic Francisco Javier García speaks during an interview regarding concerns over the recent deaths of tourists on Dominican soil, Friday, June 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Tatiana Fernandez)
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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — The deaths of eight American tourists in the Dominican Republic this year are not part of a mysterious wave of fatalities but a medically and statistically normal phenomenon that has been lumped together by the U.S. media, the island's tourism minister said Friday.

Autopsies show the tourists died of natural causes, Tourism Minister Francisco Javier García told reporters. He said five of the autopsies are complete, and three are undergoing further toxicological analysis with the help from the FBI because of the circumstances of the deaths.

With some 3.2 million U.S. tourists visiting the Dominican Republic last year, he said, it's not unusual for eight people to die while on vacation over any six-month period. Dominican officials say they are confident the three deaths still under investigation were also from natural causes.

"We want the truth to prevail," García said. "There is nothing to hide here."

The first deaths to make headlines, and still the most mysterious, were those of a couple who seemingly died at the same time in the same hotel room. The bodies of Edward Nathaniel Holmes, 63, and Cynthia Ann Day, 49, were found May 30 in their room at the Grand Bahia Principe La Romana hotel. Several medications were found in the room, including an anti-inflammatory drug, an opioid and blood-pressure medicine, García said.

Autopsies found pulmonary edema, an accumulation of fluid in the lungs frequently caused by heart disease.

Soon after the couple's death, family members appeared in U.S. media reports questioning the death of Miranda Schaup-Werner, 41, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, who died May 25 at the Luxury Bahia Principe Bouganville hotel. A family spokesman told reporters that she collapsed after getting a drink from the minibar.

An autopsy found that she died of a heart attack, García said.

After the reporting on Schaup-Werner, more coverage followed, with relatives of people who died in the Dominican Republic telling local reporters across the U.S. that they were worried about their loved ones being victims of a strange chain of unexplained deaths, possibly caused by adulterated alcohol or misused pesticides. The reported cases included at least two deaths from 2018.

The Dominican government has been criticized for not being more forthcoming about the details of the death investigations.

They "probably have some indication of what it could be or what it might not be," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious diseases and critical care doctor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. But officials have been "very opaque" about their findings.

"The longer they keep everybody in suspense, the worse it's going to be for the Dominican Republic, especially when they're so dependent on tourism. Because the longer this goes on unexplained, the longer people are going to be leery of going there," Adalja said.

García said the number of U.S. tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic dropped 56 percent from 2016 to 2018, although he did not provide further numbers or details. The U.S. State Department also discounted the idea of a surge of tourist deaths, saying the agency had not seen an uptick in the number of U.S. citizen who died there.

García showed reporters a summary of pathologists' findings in each death but declined to share the autopsy reports, saying they are not public records and that only the families could authorize their release.

Jerry Curran, 78, died Jan. 26 in the Dreams Punta Cana resort, and an autopsy report blamed pulmonary edema and other causes, García said.

Then on April 12, 67-year-old Robert Bell Wallace of California died of septic shock, pneumonia and multi-organ failure. A week later, on April 19, 70-year-old John Corcoran died of natural causes. Family members have said he had a pre-existing heart condition, and officials did not release further details.

"What some media are describing as an avalanche of deaths doesn't correspond to the reality that we're living today in the Dominican Republic," García said.

Leyla Ann Cox, 53, died from a heart attack June 10, he said. She had signs of a previous heart attack. Three days later, on June 13, Joseph Allen, also 55, died of a heart attack at the Centro Vacacional Terra Linda resort in Sosua, anthracosis edema and pulmonary congestion.

"Most tourist destinations have a number of natural deaths during a year," said Dr. Sally Aiken, a medical examiner in Spokane, Washington, who has done more than 9,000 autopsies and is vice president of the National Association of Medical Examiners.

In response to public concerns, authorities are increasing internal security measures at hotels as well as increased control over food and beverages, but only as a preventive measure, García said.

"We're very sorry for the families' grief," he said. But "there is no wave of mysterious deaths."

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Associated Press writers Michael Weissenstein in Havana, Mike Stobbe in New York and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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