The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Virus scares, Centre gropes

New Delhi, April 5: Six days after the World Health Organisation alerted India on the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which has killed 81 people and affected nearly 2,400 worldwide, India is still groping to find ways to tackle carriers of the potential disease at its borders.

Indian airports have turned into high-risk points as passengers from the affected zone — China, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore — “fly in with cursory questioning” by immigration officials, ignorant of health issues, on whether they have any respiratory disease.

At least 2,500 passengers fly in every day from the affected zone on different airlines to international airports at Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and Chennai, besides the odd weekly flights to Hyderabad, Gaya or Guwahati.

Aviation officials here admit they have not evolved any system for effectively screening virus-carriers arriving at airports. The international airports that receive passengers from East Asia lack virus detection centres. There are also no medical teams present to screen potential virus-carriers. Quarantine rooms at airports are just rooms that carry nameplate boards.

The only major step taken till now is a health advisory to all aviation and airport staff. “We have issued this advisory that if anyone notices any passenger with virus symptoms, he or she should notify health officers at airports,” said Indian Airlines director Anil Goel.

Prem Nath, spokesperson for the Airports Authority of India, said: “The health ministry has identified hospitals in major cities to which patients could be shifted and airport doctors have been issued medicines which are expected to help.” India, of course, remained at its hospitable best in welcoming Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong on a three-day visit despite Tong offering to postpone the trip on account of the virus scare.

Immigration officials questioning incoming passengers as a screen for virus-carriers is being viewed as laughable in a nation of one billion people, where people live packed cheek by jowl in its metropolises and where a virus attack could turn into an epidemic overnight.

“All that we are doing is asking those entering India to voluntarily declare their health status and employees untrained for the task to watch out. That’s just not enough,” said Dinesh Trivedi, MP and member of the Civil Aviation Parliamentary Consultative Committee. At a meeting here last week, the committee reviewed all aspects of civil aviation security.

Trivedi said that to large populations in southeast Asia, India is home. “Infected returning citizens as well as transit tourists from these countries may well have already arrived here. After all, the East Asian virus has already spread to Europe and the US.”

Quarantine arrangements for any individual suspected of carrying the virus at airports are antiquated at best, officials readily admit. “They don’t have the kind of hermetically sealed off quarantine room which is needed to separate the bearer of a killer virus which spreads through air and which is available at many other places, all they have at one or two airports is a separate room or a separate glassed off portion of a room with a quarantine signboard,” said S.S. Panesar, former director of safety, Indian Airlines.

The airlines themselves are taking no risks.

Air-India has asked its staff not to fly to the affected zone on holidays and to avoid it unless they have work. However, neither the global Indian carrier nor its sister Indian Airlines is cutting any flights to the region beyond a decision to reduce by one flight its schedule to Hong Kong as “there were fewer visitors to that region”.

Indian Airlines spokesperson Arun Kumar Srivastava said: “SARS scare or no scare, our flights to Singapore and Bangkok are going full.” IA figures show its flights operated to nearly 70 per cent capacity.

Little is, however, known about the killer virus SARS.

A WHO team is hunting for clues to the source of the virus in Guangdong, China. In neighbouring Hong Kong, scientists are tracing how the latest batch of medical staff treating patients got infected, as also a sudden explosion of SARS infecting more than 200 people in one housing estate. News reports from the state say data analysis shows that patients in the early stage of the outbreak were cooks and bird vendors, leading to suspicion that the virus might be linked to animals.

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