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Airport quarantine stop is kept busy


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POSTED: Monday, December 28, 2009

The quarantine station at Honolulu Airport is seeing a lot of international passengers arriving with swine flu but no illnesses requiring quarantine or isolation, say Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials.

The airport station was established by the CDC with the state Department of Health in 2005 to try to stop the introduction of infectious diseases.

It is concerned with extensive tourism from Japan, growing tourism from other Asian countries and increasing immigration from the U.S.-affiliated Pacific islands, said Victoria Rayle, CDC officer in charge of the station.

The global outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), first reported in Asia in 2003, was the impetus for the Honolulu station. It was the first of 19 airport stations in CDC's quarantine system, which also includes border-crossing stations.

“;SARS was one of those events that further emphasized the need to look at the traveling public in general and the dynamics to be in one place in the world in the morning and literally across the other side of the globe in the evening,”; Rayle said.

Under federal regulations, passengers can be quarantined for cholera, diphtheria, infectious tuberculosis, plague, smallpox, yellow fever, viral hemorrhagic fevers, SARS and flu that can cause a pandemic.

None of those has been detected, “;but we have to be vigilant,”; Rayle said. “;The whole idea of surveillance is a system that operates silently and functions for one event in a million. We're always checking so in the rare case that it happens, the system can pick it up.

“;What we do see is people with active tuberculosis, with measles potentially and with chickenpox—a variety of vaccine-preventable diseases we know are spread among people in close contact.”;

The station is notified of an incoming ill passenger several times a week on average but more often during influenza season, Rayle said.

“;We're seeing a lot of flu,”; she said. “;We know it's probably H1N1 (swine flu), but our Health Department partners are interested in surveillance and sampling international arrivals. It helps to keep an eye on any changes in influenza and the severity in people coming in to us.”;

The station is on the lookout for other influenzas of pandemic significance, said Dr. Tai-Ho Chen, quarantine medical officer. The spread of avian flu (H5N1), now in Egypt, is a major concern.

Once they are alerted to an ill airline passenger, the quarantine officials are the only ones to board the plane until it is determined whether the illness is of public health significance, Rayle said.

The passenger is examined in the gate area off to the side to determine whether he or she can continue to travel, she said. “;This is done fairly quickly for the safety and well-being of the passenger as well as the public.”;

The quarantine staff includes research specialist Noemi Guzman, regional support specialist Cara Kon and Erin Imada, a University of Hawaii master's degree student in public health in a CDC student career employment program.

The station is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays.