The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Delhi airport fever fight minus masks

New Delhi, April 6: Contrary to images from airports in other countries that show workers and travellers wearing masks to contain the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), no apparent preparations to prevent the spread of the lethal virus are evident at the Indira Gandhi International Airport here.

“It’s because we wouldn’t like to create unnecessary panic. In any case, we are fully equipped to deal with all kinds of eventualities and preparations for dealing with the virus had started three weeks ago when the WHO sounded the alert,” said airport chief medical officer S.K. Singh.

He said the forms given to passengers during the flight is in addition to the “general declaration” that has to be filled up and “there’s simply no way that a passenger suffering from the disease would mix up and spread the virus”.

So far, about nine cases have been referred to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases by the airport authorities.

The system set up at the airport to prevent the spread of SARS depends entirely on the information gathered from passengers during the flight. Health workers collect the forms after the flight lands and deposit them with the doctors at the airport who take necessary action if any suspicious cases are found.

“Suspected cases are identified by the crew which is intimated to us immediately after the flight lands. In the previous cases, doctors reached the aircraft with proper safeguards and the passengers were whisked away and not allowed to reach the immigration counter,” a doctor said, adding that round-the-clock inspection and regular briefing of the staff on the symptoms have begun.

SARS, which originated in China’s southern Guangdong province, spreads through droplets from sneezing or coughing and the infection may occur within a radius of 3 feet from a carrier. If a contaminated object, like a phone, touches the nose, mouth or eyes of a person, the virus could infect him. About 2,500 people worldwide have been infected so far, and more than 90 people have succumbed to the disease.

Immigration and customs officials at IGI Airport have not been provided with safeguards, because “adorning masks would lead to unnecessary panic”, health officials said. However, a palpable sense of concern can be gleaned as you talk to them.

“Saving our lives is more important than avoiding panic. Most important, the pro forma may not reveal all kinds of information, especially if a person has caught the virus recently. The symptoms start surfacing only after a week or so,” a customs official said.

Neither are passengers happy with the provisions made during a flight. Passengers of a flight coming in from Hong Kong complained masks were provided some time after they had taken off. “Masks were given only after we began asking for them and after a few passengers started sneezing and coughing. The (disinfectant) spray probably was also not the one recommended by the WHO,” alleged Vipul Rastogi, a research scholar at City University in Hong Kong.

Confirming inadequate provisions by several airlines, the chief medical officer said instructions have been issued to adhere to the norms of the WHO.

“This includes spray of the prescribed disinfectants besides other specifications,” he said.

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