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Airport Screening

July 29, 2009

By now, everyone has heard the news about the priority groups for receiving swine flu vaccines this fall. No real need to blog about that. I thought it would be more interesting to look at a phenomenon that seems to be sweeping the globe with the goal of preventing swine flu outbreaks – screening airline passengers before disembarking for fevers. This is a perfect example of what I’ve called “security theater” before. It actually does very little to stem the spread of disease, but makes it look like officials are Doing Something (R).

According to this New York Times blog post, the whole thing works like this: after landing, but before being allowed to get their stuff together, passengers see “hazmat” suited folks board the plane and walk down the aisles taking everyone’s temperature with a  hand-held “laser beam.” If no one has a fever, everyone gets off the plane very happily. If someone’s got a fever, well, the article doesn’t go into it, but suffice it to say that person is going into isolation. The rest of the plane might be placed in quarantine, or maybe only the people who were sitting near the unlucky feverish person.

So, why, Jimmy, is this theater? They’re identifying sick people and making sure they get better before releasing them unto the public. Anyone else exposed is kept separate for a few days to  make sure they don’t also have the illness. According to one of the linked articles, in some cases, the feverish receive possibly antivirals and palliative care. Again, what’s the big deal?

Well, here’s the big deal. In every place that this is happening, swine flu is already in the country. In some places running almost unchecked. And yet, you’ve got two, three, four people suited up and spending fifteen, twenty minutes on every arriving international flight to catch one person who has a disease that’s already in your country! It’s a gross waste of precious resources, but probably moreso than I give them credit for. Those moon-suit folks are probably not baggage cart guys. They’re probably nurses, doctors or public health folks. People who could be out in the community taking care of real sick people. And they’re stuck searching through a haystack of passengers for a single feverish needle.

Actually, though, it’s more hopeless than that. Think of when you have a fever. You feel pretty miserable, and take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to lower the fever and permit you to act like a normal human being. Now imagine you’ve got a fever and you’re stuck on a flying tin can for 6+ hours. You’d probably take something and try to nap. No imagine you’ve got swine flu and you’re stuck on a flying tin can for 6+ hours. You’d probably take something and try to nap. After you land, some moon-suit guy shoots a laser at your forehead and sees that you’ve got no fever.

To sum, countries are sending dozens of possibly highly trained people to spend hours, days, weeks measuring the body temperatures of thousands of international travelers who may or may not be hiding a fever, intentionally or unintentionally, in the hopes of keeping people with a disease that’s already spreading in your country out.

That is the essence of security theater. Huge waste of resources, huge burden on the public, for little to no benefit except the idea that you’re Doing Something (R).

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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