Land down underAirport flu scanners as global health alert increases

Published 30 April 2009

Australian government orders all airports to use thermal imaging systems to detect passengers who may be infected with swine flu; the scanners can detect if a passenger has a raised body temperature

Here is a new use for thermal imaging systems: detecting swine flu. The Australian government has ordered all the country’s international airports to begin using thermal body scanners to detect any passengers infected with swine flu. The scanners can detect if a passenger has a raised body temperature, and Health Minister Nicola Roxon says they will be turned on immediately.

Radio Australia reports that the move came as the World Health Organization (WHO) increased its pandemic flu alert level to five - its second-highest level. The organization’s guidelines say a phase five alert is called when a virus has caused sustained outbreaks in communities in two or more countries in one region. Under the new ratings, governments are expected to develop drug stocks to fight the outbreak of the new flu strain and to implement contingency plans.

The government in Mexico, apparent nucleus of the disease, is asking all non-essential businesses to close for five days to help contain the spread of the influenza, which has been declared a pandemic — an epidemic of infectious disease across a large region. The government will also suspend most its own operations that do not include public safety. The Health Minister has raised the number of suspected deaths from swine flu to 176.

Switzerland and Peru have become the latest countries to confirm their first cases of swine flu. Eleven nations have now reported outbreaks of the disease.

As well as turning on thermal scanners, Australia will require all incoming passengers to fill out health declaration cards, notifying their state of health. In the United States, where one death has been reported - a child visiting from Mexico — President Barack Obama says he will do whatever it takes to limit the spread of the influenza. “We’ll continue to provide regular updates to the American people as we receive more information and everyone should rest assured that this government is prepared to do whatever it takes to control the impact of this virus,” Obama said in a nationally televised address.

Lifting the international alert another notch was announced by WHO director-general Margaret Chan in Geneva. Emma Alberici reports an increase in the alert rating to level six would deem the illness a global pandemic. Dr. Chan said evidence of human-to-human transmission of the influenza virus in Mexico and the US had warranted an increase in the threat level to pandemic status five.

As the disease spreads, Spain’s health minister has confirmed a case of an infected person who has not traveled to Mexico. Across Europe, there are also three confirmed cases in Germany, one in Austria and five in Britain. The change in alert level puts governments on notice to activate other steps worked out by the world health body. It puts pharmaceutical companies and governments on alert about the need to start manufacturing enough anti-viral drugs and accelerate efforts to create a vaccine to fight the swine flu strain.

In steps also advised under top-level alert six, they are urged to keep the public and relevant authorities informed; to “implement individual, societal and pharmaceutical measures” to fight the outbreak of the new flu strain; and to “implement contingency plans.”

Dr. Chan urged all countries to take immediate action, saying a pandemic would put “all humanity under threat.” She said countries should immediately activate their pandemic preparation plans, but said the world was better prepared than ever to deal with a flu pandemic. “No matter what the situation is, the international community should treat this as a window of opportunity to ramp up … response,” Chan said. “It is really all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic.”

She warned that current WHO anti-viral stocks were too low and said the organization needed more donations from companies and governments.