ó John Nides and his wife had buckled up for the trip home
from New York on March 31 when a passenger boarded Delta
Flight 2921 who needed help from a flight attendant to
navigate the walkway, according to Nides, and was garbling his
thought this guy was drunk," Nides said.
passenger, who sat right across the aisle from Nides and his
wife, was infected with Lassa virus, a rat-born infection
common in west Africa that hasnít been detected in the
United States since 2010. Within days, the Minnesota
Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention had launched an investigation to make sure the
virus hadnít spread to others on the flight or, later, to
the staff at a Twin Cities hospital where he was treated.
no sign that Lassa fever struck the other passengers ó the
virus spreads through blood and saliva, not casual contact.
But the incident is raising questions about what protections
are in place to prevent passengers with contagious diseases
from boarding commercial flights and, through international
travel, potentially spreading viruses far and wide.
do you let a person like that on an airplane?" Nides
asked. "This guy was physically sick. This guy needed
help getting on the plane."
himself is still bothered by what happened on Delta 2921. He
was contacted by government health officials April 5, quizzed
about his proximity to the infected man, and asked to take his
temperature twice daily.
officials agreed that the case raised concerns about public
health safety when they reported the infection to the public
April 4. CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden called it a reminder
that "a disease anywhere can appear anywhere else in the
world within hours."
since the well-documented SARS and H1N1 influenza outbreaks
that crossed international borders a few years ago, airlines
and airports have worked with the CDC to promote awareness
about the risks of infected passengers. U.S. Customs and
Border Protection agents working at airports are trained to
identify passengers known by federal public health officials
to have communicable diseases, and to contact on-site medical
personnel to check on them.
that identify potentially infected passengers are not required
by federal law to keep them off flights, but pilots are
required to notify health officials before they land if any
passengers exhibit fevers that have lasted more than 48 hours
or are accompanied by rashes, jaundice or swelling.
have worked with the CDC to develop their own protocols on how
to respond if ticket agents, flight attendants or others have
concerns about passengers, said Katie Connell, a spokeswoman
for the Airlines for America trade group.
traveler who is identified as a health risk to others by
public health authorities may be denied boarding," she
Delta, if workers have concerns they are supposed to contact
an emergency medical contractor at the University of
Pittsburgh who assesses the situation and whether a passenger
is fit to fly.
officials said none of these rules were overlooked in the
Lassa fever incident.
infected man was coming from Nigeria when he reached a Customs
checkpoint early on March 31 at JFK airport in New York,
according to a statement provided by Customs spokesman Anthony
Bucci. "The traveler did not exhibit any outward signs of
illness and was subsequently admitted."
fever was confirmed only after the plane landed in
Minneapolis-St. Paul and the infected man was hospitalized. Itís
the first recorded case of Lassa virus in Minnesota.
spokeswoman declined to comment on the manís condition, but
CDC spokeswoman Candice Burns Hoffmann said he didnít
exhibit obvious signs of fever during the trip.
if he needed assistance on the plane," she said,
"this could have been due to something other than an
disagreed. While he doesnít know whether the man appeared
ill before he boarded, he said a flight attendant had to hold
the passenger by the shoulder to guide him to his seat. The
man also leaned forward against the seat back in front of him,
Nides recalled, and flight attendants repeatedly checked on
him in flight. When he dropped a piece of paper, he was too
weak to pick it up, Nides said.
frequent business traveler who sells reading glasses, Nides
has had some odd experiences on airplanes. He appeared in news
coverage in 2009 after being stuck on a Sun Country plane that
sat on the tarmac in New York for hours instead of returning
to its gate. He said heís grateful this episode didnít
involve a more lethal virus that could spread through the air.
is just a warning," he said.
Africa, 300,000 people are diagnosed with Lassa infections
each year; others carry the virus without symptoms. The
mortality rate from known infections is 1 percent to 2
percent, but health officials believe it would be lower in the
U.S. due to better medical care.
days after the March 31 flight, the CDC reached out to people
who came in close contact with the infected man and asked them
to monitor their health and body temperatures.
told them he didnít have thermometers at his Mendota
Heights, Minn., home. The next day, he said, a state epidemic
intelligence officer hand-delivered two of them.