Mystery illness prompting precautions in United States

Jet arriving from Asia is held on Calif. runway

April 02, 2003|By Joseph Menn, Charles Ornstein and Tim Reiterman | Joseph Menn, Charles Ornstein and Tim Reiterman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SAN JOSE, Calif. - An American Airlines plane from Asia carrying 139 passengers and crew was isolated for two hours yesterday after several travelers complained of symptoms similar to a mysterious respiratory illness that has killed at least 62 people and sickened nearly 2,000 worldwide.

By early afternoon, health officials in Santa Clara County determined that none of the passengers - three of whom were taken to a local hospital for evaluation - was suffering from the disease called SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome. The plane, after a cleaning, was back in service. "It's very easy in retrospect to say this was an awful lot of effort and no one had SARS," said Dr. Karen Smith, Santa Clara County's public health officer. "But it's important to be responsible. We did what we thought was best."

The decision to isolate the plane and delay passengers, a situation county health officials said never rose to the level of a quarantine, prompted criticism from authorities at other airports who said the measures were not necessary. Also, national public health officials said they don't recommend isolating planes or keeping passengers aboard if a case is suspected.

The reaction highlighted the fears that the potentially deadly illness could break out further in the United States, spread by travelers from Asia where SARS has taken lives and sickened scores of others.

The United Nations health agency advised travelers today to avoid going to Hong Kong and the Chinese province of Guangdong because of the deadly outbreak of SARS.

The World Health Organization said in Geneva that it was taking the action because at least nine foreign businessmen have caught SARS in Hong Kong and returned with it to their home countries.

California Gov. Gray Davis held a press briefing to assuage concerns. Within hours, however, the crisis had passed, leaving serious questions about how international travelers should be handled.

The plane, American Flight 128, had left Tokyo with five passengers who had transferred from Hong Kong. The pneumonia-like illness there has caused a public health panic, with hundreds falling ill, more than a dozen dead and entire apartment buildings vacated.

Flight 128's pilot radioed for assistance while en route after learning that a handful of passengers had complained of SARS-like symptoms. The respiratory illness is believed to be caused by an airborne virus transmitted through close contact with an infected person.

According to county health officials, the pilot's radio call set into motion a series of high-level responses contained in their emergency plans. The airport honored the pilot's request to land in a remote location at the airport. Airport officials then called local fire and police departments who in turn notified health officials. Just this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for the airline industry regarding cases of respiratory illness on flights from Hong Kong; Guangdong Province, China; and Hanoi, Vietnam.

Joseph Menn, Charles Ornstein and Tim Reiterman write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.