Scanners at airports as world grows wary

A thermal scanner shows the heat signature of passengers.
A thermal scanner shows the heat signature of passengers. Photo: Reuters

TRAVELLERS have been warned to expect significant delays after thermal scanners started screening passengers for high temperatures at all of Australia's international airports last night.

Health Minister Nicola Roxon yesterday announced the measures alongside mandatory health declaration forms for all passengers coming into Australia from overseas.

The action was taken in response to the World Health Organisation lifting its alert to level 5 — declaring a swine flu pandemic imminent and making countries implement plans.

The death of a two-year-old Mexican in the United States is the first outside Mexico. President Barack Obama has resisted calls to close the border, saying: "It would be akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out, because we already have cases here."

The probable death toll in Mexico from swine flu has been revised down from 150-plus to 84 following more stringent tests. There are 99 confirmed cases there, and of those eight confirmed deaths.

President Felipe Calderon urged citizens to stay at home during a five-day holiday weekend starting today. "Stay at home with your family because there is no place as safe," he said. It is estimated the flu could knock 0.5 per cent off its GDP.

Ten other countries across four continents have confirmed cases.

As of 5pm yesterday, Australian health authorities had tested 114 people. None had tested positive. None were listed as probable cases.

European Union health ministers have planned emergency talks in Luxembourg overnight, with France pushing for a ban on flights to Mexico.

Health Minister Roxon said passengers who declared flu symptoms or were detected by the scanners as having a high temperature would be referred to clinical staff.

"These people will have their temperature taken and may be required to provide a nose or throat swab," she said.

"Public health authorities can put anyone who is believed to have been exposed to swine flu under surveillance until their status has been resolved."

Ms Roxon urged people to be patient because the thermal detectors were expected to cause delays and would pick up high temperatures regardless of the cause. "We believe that this is a sensible precautionary measure to be taking," she said. "We believe that the inconvenience will be worthwhile."

Passengers will also be forced to provide their addresses and contact details so health authorities can track them down if need be.

Ms Roxon said the scanners would not necessarily be able to identify everyone at risk because the incubation period — where symptoms may not appear — is about two days.

She said the Government was not advising people to wear face masks yet, but did recommend people maintain good hygiene by washing their hands and covering their mouths when coughing or sneezing.

The Government has nearly 9 million doses of antiviral medication and about 40 million face masks in reserve.

"It does look increasingly inevitable that at some point, despite our best efforts, someone in Australia may well end up with swine flu," she said.

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