LAX Ponders Bird-Flu Plan

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Los Angeles International Airport is a key entry point for flights from Asia. Concerns over bird flu have airport authorities are scrambling to come up with a plan to quarantine infected passengers. Rob Schmitz of member station KPCC reports.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Fifty years ago, the United States operated quarantine stations at every international port of entry. In the 1950s and '60s, the number of these stations decreased with the advent of vaccinations. Now, with the possibility of a bird flu pandemic in mind, officials at Los Angeles International Airport are working with federal and local officials on bringing the quarantines back. From member station KPCC, Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ reporting:

The strain of the bird flu known as H5N1 has not yet efficiently spread from human to human. If that were to happen, though, there's a chance that a new human strain of bird flu could arrive in the US through these doors.

(Soundbite of airport terminal)

SCHMITZ: Ten thousand travelers from Asia pass this way each day here at Los Angeles Airport's international terminal. LAX is the nation's number-one gateway for travelers from Asia, and that's why federal, state and local health officials recently met here to develop a plan in case pandemic flu develops. LA public health official Dr. Robert Kim-Farley says in such a scenario, if someone on an incoming flight should exhibit pandemic flu symptoms, the flight crew would notify LAX. After the flight lands, says Dr. Kim-Farley, federal and local health officials would board the plane.

Dr. ROBERT KIM-FARLEY (Los Angeles Public Health Official): They would have confirmed that there was an influenza-like illness. Those passengers would have been taken off, taken to a nearby hospital, which has isolation rooms, negative pressure rooms, and rapidly tests would be done. The other passengers would be most likely quarantined, held at the airport for about 24 to 48 hours while those tests were being done.

SCHMITZ: Dr. Kim-Farley says if the person in question tested positive for the pandemic strain of the flu, other passengers would most likely be moved to a nearby shelter where they would be quarantined from seven to 10 days. LAX was the latest stop for officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By the end of the year, the CDC will have visited seven other airports, including those in New York, Washington and Chicago, to work on strategies to deal with pandemic flu. At LAX, spokeswoman Nancy Castles says airport officials are trying to get their heads around the daunting logistics of quarantining a large number of people.

Ms. NANCY CASTLES (Los Angeles International Airport): Such facilities could be hangars. If we develop something like that, then what are the next steps? How do you feed the people? What kind of sleeping arrangements do you make, OK? What about telephones so that the people who are being sequestered can talk to family and friends?

SCHMITZ: LA County's Dr. Robert Kim-Farley says airports still have time to come up with concrete plans. The pandemic flu that officials were here to discuss is just a hypothetical. Kim-Farley says at this stage, people should be concerned but not alarmed.

Dr. KIM-FARLEY: The fact that there have been some transmissions from the birds to humans is a reason for concern. The reason there's not yet an alarm stage is because there's not been any efficient transmission from humans to humans.

SCHMITZ: And, says Dr. Kim-Farley, the odds are slim of detecting airline passengers at a stage when they pose the greatest risk to others.

Dr. KIM-FARLEY: I think in the reality of things, though, as we all realize, you know, there's an incubation period for influenza, and, you know, the likelihood that someone's going to just happen to break out of the incubation period during that flight is, you know, possible but not necessarily highly likely, either.

SCHMITZ: Instead, says Dr. Kim-Farley, what's more likely is that person would begin to show symptoms after getting off the plane, passing through customs and walking out the door of an American airport. For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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