Few things are more frightening than becoming sick or getting injured while far from home, on land or at sea.

Bereft of one's usual support system -- family doctor, local hospital, friends and family -- a traveler can feel frighteningly vulnerable when a medical emergency arises and he or she must turn to strangers for help.

At such times, it is reassuring to know that the attending doctors are well trained, the diagnostic equipment is appropriate and an emergency evacuation procedure -- if needed -- is immediately available.

With that in mind, we think it not unreasonable to take note of disquieting comments by physicians participating in a recent panel discussion on travel and cruise ship medicine conducted in Orlando, Fla.

While acknowledging that the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL) has set credible but voluntary minimum standards for its 17 member lines, the assembled doctors complained that medical facilities on ships remained unregulated and that a ship-by-ship listing of specific therapeutic and emergency information was unavailable to medical practitioners and the public alike.

The ICCL, for its part, maintains that its members are fully compliant with its guidelines -- identical to those adopted by the prestigious American College of Emergency Physicians -- but that it does not collect the kind of medical data a travel agent could use, say, to help determine which ship to recommend to a client with a heart condition.

Ironically, it probably wouldn't take the same agent more than a minute to find the name of every bar and restaurant on the newest megaship.

We are reminded that in 1995, the American Medical Association called for the development of standards of medical care for U.S. citizens aboard cruise ships through legislation or treaty. The concept of such verifiable and certifiable standards still seems a good one to us.

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