US airports to beef up screening for Ebola

No details given, but passengers from Ebola-hit nations will not be banned

DALLAS - President Barack Obama has pledged to boost screening for Ebola-infected airline passengers, a decison that will mean devising a way to check thousands of flights arriving daily at United States airports for those who are ill but symptom-free.

The US government would develop expanded screening of airline passengers, both in the West African countries hit by the disease and in the US.

Ebola has killed more than 3,400 people in Africa, mostly in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

While United and Delta airlines are the only US-based operators serving Africa, heightened Ebola vigilance would require a broad net, covering travellers on other non-stop flights from the continent and those who connect via European carriers in hubs such as London and Paris.

At-risk fliers identified by screening would then need to be scrutinised for any history of exposure to the disease.

Several US health experts and lawmakers have asked the administration to consider enhancing US airport and customs screenings, including checking travellers using handheld fever scanners.

The first confirmed Ebola case in the US is a Liberian man, Mr Thomas Eric Duncan, who arrived in Dallas on Sept 20 from Brussels.

After arriving in the Belgian city from the Liberian capital of Monrovia, he took two United Airlines flights to Dallas, changing planes in Washington.

Connecting passengers such as Mr Duncan show up in US government data as European travellers.

Mr Duncan is in critical condition in a Dallas hospital, where he has been given the experimental drug brincidofovir.

On Monday, Mr Obama promised more rigorous passenger scrutiny without saying how the plan may work.

Airlines for America, a trade group for the airline industry representing the biggest US carriers, said it would meet health and safety officials to discuss whether additional screenings could improve on measures already in place.

People leaving Ebola-affected countries are asked to fill out a questionnaire on whether they have symptoms such as high fever and whether they have had any contact with someone who was diagnosed with Ebola.

In Liberia, they are also scanned for fever.

"There's a level of anxiousness - and appropriately so - from people in the business," said Mr Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the US National Transportation Safety Board.

"This is a long-term battle and I don't see what I think ought to be long-term fixes," he said.

Any new policies have to go beyond what is expected of flight attendants confronted with an ill passenger, Mr Goelz said. Aircraft cleaners and airport workers who push wheelchairs also have to be considered and trained, he said.

Mr Obama sought to quell fears about the potential for the virus to spread in the US.

"I know that the American people are concerned about the possibility of an Ebola outbreak," Mr Obama said. Health officials have "learnt lessons" and the chance of an epidemic in the US is "extraordinarily low", he said.

Officials are not considering a ban on airline passengers from West Africa, as some lawmakers have urged, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.

Corgenix Medical is developing a test that could check for the Ebola virus within 10 minutes, much faster than the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's existing test, the firm's chief executive officer, Mr Douglass Simpson, said. Similar to a home pregnancy test, the appearance of two blue lines indicates a positive result. "We're going as fast as we can," Mr Simpson said.

The US National Institutes of Health recently awarded Corgenix a US$3 million (S$3.8 million) grant to develop its Ebola test.


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