Airport disease screening

One of the procedures that will be attempted during a communicable disease outbreak, such as a reappearance of SARS or an airborne strain of avian influenza, will be screenings of arriving airport passengers.

Screening of passengers for flu called a success

The process aims to prevent the spread of infectious diseases

By Helen Altonn

A voluntary screening process for flulike illnesses among international arrivals at Hono- lulu Airport worked so well it may be done more often next year, a state Health Department official said.

The process was tested recently on 435 arriving Japan Airlines passengers, said Dr. Sarah Park, chief of the Disease Outbreak Control Division.

The program is aimed at intercepting passengers with possibly infectious diseases such as bird flu or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) before they can expose a broader population.

The passengers “did their part to help us out,” Park said. “We were pleasantly surprised how fast they went through. Each time we do this, we’re learning and tweaking the process and improving upon it.”

Having a plan on paper is one thing, and certainly better than having nothing at all, but it is always advisable to test plans, both for training personnel, as well as identifying any weaknesses or flaws.

Fearing the introduction of infectious diseases into Hawaii, the state in November 2005 became the first in the nation to set up a passive airport surveillance program for Hawaii-bound international travelers.

Pilots must notify the airport tower if they have a potentially ill passenger on board, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Quarantine Station is called to evaluate the passenger at the gate. Those who have fever and respiratory symptoms are asked to be tested for flu.

In June, the Health Department worked with the CDC, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Transportation and Hawaiian Airlines to start a pilot project. Federal officials hope that efficient standard procedures can be developed to be used across the country.

After the world’s experience with SARS in 2002/03 it comes as somewhat of a surprise that there is not, as yet, an in place set of “standard procedures” across the United States.

Since the natural reservoir of SARS was never identified, there is some concern that it might one day reappear, and then there is H5N1, a pandemic threat since 2003. Now, one could quibble over exactly how much of a threat infectious disease represents and how much effort we should expend to prevent [or limit] disease introductions into the country, but there is little argument over emergent or reemerging infectious diseases having heath and economic consequences.

Charleston, South Carolina is a port city and I have a casual familiarity with the efforts expended by law enforcement to protect it against terrorist attacks or using the port as an entry point for chemical or biological materials intended for a future act of terrorism. Charleston is not alone in these protective measures; they have become a part of law enforcement in every port city around the country.

It is difficult for me to understand the difference in actions taken to protect the country from the threats of attack by terrorists compared to the threats of communicable diseases. The cynic in me is tempted to assume that the asymmetric response to a potential threat has to do with funding. Organizations get huge infusions of Federal funds for terrorist threats, not so much for threats from communicable disease.


Protecting the nation should not be a function of how profitable doing so is for an organization.


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