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Debate: SARS screening

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Should SARS screening be permitted at the airports?

Background and context

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is a respiratory illness that has been reported in Asia, North America, and Europe. SARS is a pneumonia-like illness that is caused by a virus. By June 2003 a total of 8403 probable cases, including 775 deaths, had been reported from 29 countries. SARS was first recognized at the end of February 2003 in Hanoi, Vietnam. The first victim, a middle-aged businessman who traveled extensively in South-East Asia before becoming ill, was admitted to a hospital in Hanoi on 26 February 2003 with high fever, dry cough, myalgia and mild sore throat. Over the following four days, he developed symptoms of adult respiratory distress syndrome. Despite intensive therapy, he died on 13 March. Following his admission to the hospital, approximately 20 members of the hospital staff showed symptoms of SARS. After SARS was recognized, the World Health Organization required airport officials at four locations to screen passengers for signs of the illness. The locations were Hanoi, Hong Kong, Toronto, and Singapore. Passengers were to be asked questions as they checked in for flights, including whether they had symptoms of SARS such as coughing, fever or breathing difficulties. According to the WHO, the passengers should also be questioned about contact with possible SARS cases. This procedure led many to question whether screening of passengers at airports is a good idea. N.B. At the time of writing (July 2003), it seems hopeful that SARS has been brought under control. Nevertheless, the arguments in this topic will remain relevant to any future outbreaks of infectious disease.

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Argument #1

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Yes

It is important to screen passengers prior to boarding their flights. Doing so will help to reduce the involvement of other countries with this deadly disease. Most of the cases of SARS have begun by travellers returning from other parts of the world with SARS. To date, the majority of cases have been spread through travel rather than as a result of close contact with family members or health care workers. That is why the screening efforts are meant to enforce this important control measure, which is essential to minimise the SARS spreading in other countries.

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No

Screening measures cause inconvenience to the travelers. The procedure takes time, which is so important for travelers. Flight timetables don’t include the time of screening and it might cause the delays. In addition, airborne droplets and touching infected surfaces are the main forms of transmission. So the travelers are still in danger of getting the disease on the airplane. The most likely risk may involve handling contaminated items such as railings, lift buttons, door handles, money, and so on. Screening the passengers only before they board the airplane is not the best solution to avoid the spread of the disease.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Screening passengers for SARS protects people from getting this potentially deadly disease. Travellers would prefer to spend more time at the airports before their departure rather then get SARS. Passengers will feel safer and healthier in the aeroplane knowing that infected people are not in close contact with them. They would avoid spreading SARS to their relatives, business partners and citizens of other countries. The WHO officials have stated that sitting within two to three rows of an infected person on a plane could be considered "close contact". Close Contact includes such things as kissing or embracing, sharing eating or drinking utensils, close conversation (within three feet), physical examination, or any other direct physical contact between people. It is important that authorities carry out screening to avoid close contact with infected persons.

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No

The screening procedure doesn’t guarantee protection from SARS. The passengers at the airports aren't actually being tested for SARS. Asking verbal questions about possible symptoms is not enough to avoid spreading disease to other passengers. If a passenger is infected and doesn’t describe his or her symptoms, it means that he or she takes the disease on the aeroplane and spreads it to other countries. This would increase the number of cases and bring it to less affected areas. Passengers are still at risk while they are being questioned, since airborne droplets through sneezing and coughing can spread SARS. This can take place while infected passengers are at the airport screening area. In addition, the screening violates the rights of people with no connection to SARS. Since SARS symptoms are the similar to the symptoms of regular cold, the authorities shouldn’t forbid the travellers with the same symptoms to enter the aeroplane; it would be considered as a violation of passengers’ rights.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Screening passengers for SARS is legally permissible. The WHO has the right to request the airport authorities to screen passengers. The constitution of the WHO, which is confirmed by the Charter of the United Nations, includes the mandate to argue for the protection of security of all peoples. Screening measures are an example of actions taken to guarantee people’s security.

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No

Screening for SARS is illegal. The procedures that include the questions about the close contact to an infected person and also examining temperature in a different atmosphere make us think about several private, personal issues. In addition, all these measures give a false sense of security to travellers. The WHO recommended international travellers to postpone travel in the most affected regions. There are only several airports where screening has been required. If the authorities are concerned about the global spread of the disease then the measures should be taken in almost every international airport of the world. For instance, if an infected passenger gets into an aeroplane in Paris and flies to New York City, the disease is already spread. The authorities shouldn’t take strict measures only in the most affected countries.

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Argument #4

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Yes

Screening is profitable for air companies. Screening for SARS is one of the solutions to avoid the decline of the travel industry and the wider economy. Screening measures will be valuable if passengers think that screening make it safe for them to fly again. They won’t hesitate whether to chose to travel by plane or not and they will be willing to purchase the airline tickets.

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No

Screening for SARS will have a serious economic impact. The possibilities and the risk of transmission of SARS on aeroplanes have already caused a sharp decline in airline traffic, especially in the most affected countries. The virus itself caused the slump in flight demands. This has forced airline officials to cancel flights. As fewer passengers travel to areas affected with SARS, the tourism and restaurant industries will be affected as well. We have already seen the decline in the Asian markets and a weakening of the Canadian dollar because of the SARS outbreak. Airport screening will only compound these economic harms.

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