April 26, 2006

Don't Sneeze When You Take Your Shoes Off

The year is still young, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) might pull in the wacky public health policy award of 2006. This week, the CDC proposed quarantine rules to prevent bird flu from entering and spreading through the United States. In case of a major outbreak, all airline and ship passengers would be required to give detailed contact information, and those among them suspected (but not necessarily proved) of being infected by bird flu would be sent to a special island detained at an airport terminal for three days. In short, after the security screening comes the health screening. As Ram Koppaka, chief of the (terrifyingly named) Quarantine and Border Health Services branch of the CDC puts it: “The federal government feels it has a responsibility to notify people who have been exposed to a communicable disease while traveling.” The innovative part of the proposed policy is that those responsible for avian flu screening would be flight attendants, pilots and cruise ship crew, when they are not busy pushing food carts around, mopping the deck, or flying the plane. They are to check passengers for mild symptoms like fever, cough, sore throat, and muscle aches (not due to sitting in economy class), and also for more serious symptoms such as eye infections, pneumonia and respiratory diseases (not due to breathing recirculated air). Of course, any old pilot or flight attendant can see if someone is coughing; the real art is to detect bird flu among passengers who have bird flu but are asymptomatic, and dispatch them to Terminal D. If the proposed guidelines go through, and avian flu takes off, it might be wise to be very, very nice to the flight and cruise staff. And cancel international trips if you have a head cold.
- Stuart Rennie

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