No anti-SARS measures at BIA, say passengers

by Dilanthi Jayamanne and Kesara Abeywardena
While authorities say all possible steps are taken to prevent the deadly SARS virus from entering the country passengers coming through the Katunayake airport express surprise at the non-existence of precautionary measures.

When contacted by "The Island" the airport Public Health Officer said that a team including doctors are stationed at the arrival gates to detect suspected SARS carriers. He said that only those with symptoms like cough or a running nose are questioned by the team. He also said that passengers arriving from Singapore and Hong Kong are given a form of declaration to determine whether they have SARS symptoms.

However passengers say there is no proper method at the Katunayake airport to detect any possible carrier and no one is being questioned to that effect.

Health Minister P. Dayaratne addressing a press conference on Wednesday said a decision had been taken by the five-member committee appointed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe to update the activities on SARS prevention. At present the regulations cover only suspected cases of small pox, cholera and several other epidemics.

The committee includes the Ministers of Defence, Health, Foreign Affairs, Interior and Tourism.

Minister Dayaratne explaining the decisions taken by the committee on Tuesday said that screening and surveillance of patients at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) and the Colombo Port have are already been increased. "All passengers in carriers arriving into the country from affected ports such as China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada and Australia would be given a declaration form to be submitted at the immigration desk along with the disembarking card."

The In-flight announcement to be made in this regard would be collected by the Port Health Centre and would be followed up by the regular monitoring of a medical officer of health at the place of residence of the suspected SARS patient for any development of disease symptoms.

"Thermal scanning equipment to detect passengers with fever would be installed by BIA authorities," he pointed out adding that the equipment would be brought down from Singapore at a cost of Rs. 2 million.

More medical officers, public health inspectors and nurses would be released to the airport authority and health centre to increase surveillance of passengers returning to the country. "Any suspected cases detected would be examined at the BIA health centre and transferred to the Infectious Disease Hospital for quarantine," he said.

The Minister pointed out the need for public awareness of SARS and on how to cope with the situation if the disease arises in Sri Lanka. "Personal hygiene, preventive measures and prevention of a panic situation are most necessary," he said. There should also be an awareness created among the medical staff through circular instructions and individual awareness programmes.

Dayaratne said that the Prime Minister had called a meeting on Monday to review the SARS control activities conducted by different agencies. It was decided that surveillance should be strengthened in ports. "Adequate protective gear is to be made available to the health staff." The Director of the Medical Services Department (MSD) has been requested to order adequate stocks while the WHO has been requested to supply additional stocks. "The State Pharmaceutical Corporation (SPC) has been instructed to make available adequate gauze masks at Osu-sala franchise outlets and agents to enable the public to have easy access to these protective appliances," he said.

The Minister claimed that the Medical Research Institute (MRI) had been strengthened to handle investigations of suspect cases.

Director General Health Services (DGHS) Dr. Athula Kahandaliyanage claimed that the ICU at the IDH was being installed at present. "A mobile X-ray machine has been given to the hospital while steps are being taken to provide it with a radiologist and disposable X-ray film," the director said.

He pledged that regular reviews would be conducted by him to take appropriate action in order to improve the skills.