Dominican Republic's health ministry calls mysterious deaths 'fake news' as official lashes out in interview

Dominican Republic public health officials dismissed reports of the rash of deaths of U.S. tourists at luxury resorts as nothing more than “fake news” Wednesday aimed at undermining their tourism industry.

Ministry of Public Health spokesman Carlos Suero told Fox News on Wednesday that either final or preliminary autopsy reports for the nine tourists whose deaths are publicly known show they died of natural causes.

Suero also said that results from testing by government health inspectors – with assistance from the U.S. Embassy, he added -- of food and alcohol, the pool and air conditioning and other areas on the properties all came back negative. Several of the U.S. tourists who died were said to have had a beverage from the room minibar before they fell ill.

“It’s all a hysteria against the Dominican Republic, to hurt our tourism, this is a very competitive industry and we get millions of tourists, we are a popular destination,” Suero said. “People are taking aim at us.”

“The testing results are all negative, everything – the food, the alcohol, the air – is normal, there is no alteration of the alcohol,” Suero said. “With all the tourists we get every year, we make sure we comply with international standards for everything.”

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Asked to confirm that testing of alcohol and food and resort properties had returned negative results, the State Department did not respond to the specific question, sending an email to Fox News that said: “We are closely monitoring ongoing investigations by Dominican authorities into several recent deaths of U.S. citizens in the Dominican Republic.

"The FBI is providing technical assistance to Dominican authorities with toxicology reports for three recent deaths at the Grand Bahia Principe La Romana resort. Our FBI colleagues tell us that those results may take up to 30 days.  For all other questions regarding investigations into recent deaths (and attacks) of U.S. citizens, we refer you to local authorities in the Dominican Republic.”

The FBI did not respond to a request for confirmation or comment about the completion and results of tests on alcohol, food and other factors.

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Suero’s comments come after Dominican Public Health Minister Rafael Sanchez Cardenas characterized the reports of the deaths as “un montaje” (setup) aimed at “hurting tourism.”

Sanchez Cardenas said that Leyla Cox, a 53-year-old New York woman who died in her room on June 10 at the Excellence resort in Punta Cana, had a history of “several heart attacks.”

Her family and co-workers disputed his claim, saying that she was generally healthy and had not had a heart attack before. They said they question the Dominican conclusion that the cause of her death was a heart attack, and will be conducting toxicological tests when a sample of her blood is received in the U.S.

Dominican government officials have been using the hashtag #BeFairWithDR on social media.

From the outset, Dominican authorities have said that the deaths of the U.S. tourists, who range in age from 41 to 78, were isolated incidents.

Dominican Republic Minister of Public Health Rafael Sanchez Cardenas

Dominican Republic Minister of Public Health Rafael Sanchez Cardenas

“People die all over the world,” Suero said. “Unfortunately, very unfortunately for us, these tourists have died here. We had about 14 deaths last year here of U.S. tourists, and no one said a word. Now everyone is making a big deal of these.”

Suero was referring to deaths kept on the State Department website that cover incidents such as car accidents, but excludes deaths declared by Dominican authorities as stemming from natural causes. It is difficult to know, therefore, how many tourist deaths linked to natural causes there have been.

Suero said the Dominican Republic should not be blamed for what would have happened to those who died in the resort anywhere else.

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“I went to the United States and got an infection in my throat, but luckily I was returning to the Dominican Republic soon after,” he said. “If I’d died, would I have been right to blame the United States? No.”

The popular Caribbean vacation spot, which attracts more than 5 million tourists each year from around the globe, has been rocked by reports of the deaths of nine U.S. tourists. Most fell suddenly and critically ill in the resorts, and many died in their rooms, some after having a beverage from the minibar. Preliminary reports for many of them noted pulmonary edema – in which the lungs are filled with fluid. And the cause of death for most of them was a heart attack.

A preliminary report shown to Fox News about the death of New Jersey resident Jonathan Allen in June stated that he was “a ticking time bomb.”

The report said: “His organs were practically destroyed, with a biological age of more than 80 years old. He was extremely obese, weighing more than 400 pounds.”

Noting that toxicological results are pending, the report said that he had pulmonary edema, cerebral edema, a fatty liver and cardiac problems.

Allen, a native of Avenel in southern New Jersey, had reportedly complained about being hot at a pool and left to take a shower; he went to bed early and was found dead the next day.

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Appearing on "Fox & Friends" on Wednesday, Jason Allen said his brother was not concerned about the recent deaths or the shooting of David Ortiz before he left for the Terra Linda Resort with a group of friends.

Allen said he does not trust the Dominican authorities to provide the answers about how his brother died. He said an autopsy was performed Friday, but no "official report" has been provided to the family.

It was the death of an engaged couple from Maryland who both were found dead in their room on May 30 -- before the other deaths became public --that first raised eyebrows worldwide. Edward Holmes, 63, and his girlfriend, Cynthia Day, 49, arrived in the Dominican Republic on May 25 and posted many photos on their social media pages showing them enjoying their vacation.

Their death, it was later revealed, came five days after a Pennsylvania woman, Miranda Schaup-Werner, who was 41, died in the same resort complex in her room. Her husband said she collapsed after having a drink from the minibar. Her official cause of death is reported as a heart attack.

Preliminary autopsy reports indicated the couple had internal bleeding, including in their pancreases, and pulmonary edema. For Holmes, the reports noted an enlarged heart and cirrhosis of the liver. Day was listed as having cerebral edema, or fluid in her brain.

Steve Bullock, an attorney for the families of the couple, whose remains recently were repatriated, said to reporters an independent autopsy and toxicological tests would be conducted in the U.S.

“If you look at two people dying at the same time allegedly of the same cause of death and then we get another report that someone who stayed in the same hotel three days prior to them checking in died of the same cause, that gives us reason to pause,” said the attorney, Steven Bullock, according to a Maryland CBS affiliate.

Suero says there is no mystery in their deaths.

“They were a special case as far as U.S. tourists,” Suero said. "They were a special medical case."

He said that Holmes died first, and that Day died afterward, “probably from the shock of seeing the person beside her dead,” Suero said.

“They had a lot of medical conditions. There were many bottles of prescription medication in their room,” Suero said. “They practically carried around a pharmacy with them. They had pills for blood pressure, for the heart, they had anti-depressants. When you get on an airplane and travel with all that medical [baggage], this can happen.”

He added that the day before, Holmes contact the hotel staff to say he did not feel well, but declined medical help after learning of the cost.

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“He said he’d just wait to get back to the U.S. the next day and go to his regular doctor.”

Fox News' Lucia Suarez Sang contributed to this report.