Health scares at US airports tied to haj pilgrims: Officials

CHICAGO • Two major health scares at United States airports involving inbound flights were related to pilgrims returning from the haj, the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which ended late last month, health officials have said.

Last Wednesday, US health officials sent an emergency response team with mobile diagnostic equipment to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York after they were told that more than 100 passengers aboard an Emirates flight from Dubai were experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Dr Martin Cetron, director of the global migration and quarantine division at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told Reuters last Friday that health officials evaluated nearly 549 passengers at the airport and sent a total of 11 people to a local hospital for more testing.

Ten people were tested for a battery of respiratory viruses and bacteria in the hope of ruling out serious pathogens that could present a public health threat. Two of them tested positive for an especially virulent type of influenza A virus, and one of the two, who was gravely ill with pneumonia, was co-infected with another respiratory virus, Dr Cetron said. A third person tested positive for a cold virus.

All three took part in the haj, which this year drew some two million people to Mecca, Dr Cetron said.

Seven crew members, who boarded the flight in Dubai and were not pilgrims, tested negative for a number of respiratory infections of public health concern, Dr Cetron said.

The next day, two flights arriving in Philadelphia from Europe were screened by medical teams after 12 passengers reported flu-like symptoms. One of them had visited Mecca for the haj.

Dr Cetron said health officials in New York had been prepared to quarantine a large group of sick passengers in an area at the airport.

From a total of 11 passengers taken to hospital for evaluation, 10 were tested for respiratory symptoms, all of whom tested negative for the Middle East respiratory syndrome or Mers, a highly infectious and deadly respiratory infection that was first identified in the Middle East in 2012.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 09, 2018, with the headline 'Health scares at US airports tied to haj pilgrims: Officials'. Print Edition | Subscribe