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EbolaAirports scrambling to find effective passenger Ebola screening methods

Published 4 August 2014

Some airports in Africa have begun screening passengers for Ebola. The current methods involves thermal screening of patients, and then subjecting passengers with an elevated temperature, a symptom of Ebola, to a blood testcalled a polymerase chain reaction test. The test can take eight hours or longer to obtain lab results, and is expensive.Aviation experts recommend screening passengers for Ebola the same way aviation security screen passengers for other threats like terrorism, but say the screening methods must be made to yield results more quickly and cheaply.

In light of the recent Ebola scare in Nigeria, where health officials confirmed that an American-born Liberian citizen, who was infected with the disease, died shortly after arriving at a Lagos airport, aviation officials will be screening passengers arriving from Sierra Leone, one of the three countries experiencing an Ebola outbreak. Passengers with an elevated temperature, a symptom of Ebola, would be subject to a blood test.

Although the presence of antibodies in the blood is a more conclusive sign of the Ebola virus, subjecting possibly thousands of passengers to a blood test is impractical and would slow international air travel.

The National Journal reports that the current method for the proposed blood test, called a polymerase chain reaction test, can take eight hours or longer to obtain lab results and will be expensive. South Africa recently announced that its airports will be outfitted with thermal scanners to detect feverish passengers. A similar method was unsuccessfully used in 2009 to detect passengers for fever from suspected bird flu.

Experts agree that detecting Ebola at airport checkpoints, and doing so in a relatively short amount of time, would help stop the virus from crossing international borders, but the technology to do so is currently unavailable. In June, Douglass Simpson, CEO of Corgenix, received a $3 million National Institute of Health grant to develop a point-of-care test for Ebola. The device would allow airport screeners to spot the virus in a feverish passenger in just ten minutes. “Our job is to as quickly as possible advance those tests and make them available in those zones,” Simpson said. Corgenix expects to have the tests available by 2016.

Some aviation experts recommend screening passengers for Ebola the same way aviation security screen passengers for other aviation threats like terrorism. Passengers should be screened based on where they have been, and the likelihood that they have been in contact with the disease. “Prescreening would be prudent, and reasonable, based on the information available. Public health personnel would need to develop appropriate criteria that yield good results and also limit false positives. In essence, prescreening, if done appropriately, can work in any type of screening mechanism,” Sheldon H. Jacobson a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois wrote to Defense One.

On whether aviation and health officials can prevent an Ebola outbreak in the United States, “I don’t think it’s in the cards that we would have widespread Ebola,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) head Tom Frieden said. The CDC is closely monitoring U.S. groups and officials operating in West Africa who may be returning home within the next coming weeks, including Peace Corps volunteers, and medical researchers. The CDC recently confirmed that an American doctor infected with Ebola, Kent Brantly, has arrived in the country for treatment at a special isolation unit at Emory University Hospital. Nancy Writebol, a medical missionary treating Ebola patients in Liberia is also expected to arrive in the United States on Wednesday on a specially equipped medical evacuation plane.

So it’s not going to spread widely in the U.S. Could we have another person here, could we have a case or two? Not impossible,” Frieden said. “We say in medicine never say never. But we know how to stop it here. But to really protect ourselves, the single most important thing we can do is stop it at the source in Africa. That’s going to protect them and protect us.”