Wednesday, May 25, 2005

"I think we're ahead of the curve and other jurisdictions, just because we're cognizant that our air travel is potentially a risk."

Dr. Paul Effler
State epidemiologist

Bird flu plan
calls for airport

Hawaii officials want
to test people arriving
at Honolulu Airport

As nations prepare for a possible avian flu virus pandemic, state and federal health officials are working on a proposal to screen travelers who arrive at Honolulu Airport with influenza-like illness.

The state Health Department began developing the proposal a few months ago with the federal quarantine office at the airport, said Dr. Paul Effler, state epidemiologist.

"I think we're ahead of the curve and other jurisdictions, just because we're cognizant that our air travel is potentially a risk," Effler said.

A study by Northwestern University researchers released yesterday ranked Hawaii 24th among 3,883 communities as the world's most vital air travel hubs. More importantly, the study placed Honolulu in the top 1 percent of the world's major places to watch during a contagious disease outbreak.

The officials want to screen people arriving with illnesses that primarily could be influenza, including avian flu or other pathogenic strains of influenza, Effler said.

They sent the proposal to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Quarantine Division in Atlanta four weeks ago, Effler said.

"My response from CDC quarantine (this week) was that we were forward thinking and they wanted to support us."

He said details haven't been sorted out and the officials plan to discuss the idea by telephone tomorrow.

On Sunday, the World Health Organization urged countries to prepare for a possible avian flu virus pandemic.

The virus has killed 100 million birds in eight Asian countries and caused human infections and deaths in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

The WHO said there is evidence that the avian virus H5N1 may be infecting people more readily and some strains may be developing resistance to one of only two antiviral drugs that work against it.

Effler noted that international arrivals are under federal jurisdiction and the state Health Department must work within existing quarantine law to screen travelers for influenza.

"Our goal is to provide them access to testing, to make quick diagnostic decisions and identify avian flu or other pathogenic illnesses."

Airplane pilots, as well as ship captains, are required under quarantine protocols to identify people arriving who are ill and have a condition that may warrant quarantine, Effler said.

"We're trying to add a component of providing laboratory support for that so we get a diagnosis sooner than later."

He said he would prefer to collect specimens or do a rapid test on site, but more definitive testing to determine avian flu must be done in a certified laboratory.

"We want to make sure any tests are done accurately."

But he said, "The goal is to be as unobtrusive as possible" so travel isn't affected.

The Health Department has developed a statewide surveillance system to look for infectious diseases. The department alerted doctors and other health care providers last fall to watch for symptoms of the potentially deadly avian flu. No cases have been reported.

The system was in place when severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, emerged as a threat in 2003. Four suspected cases were reported but weren't confirmed.

State Department of Health

E-mail to City Desk


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