‘Flu’ flight triggers mild panic

By Siouxsie Wiles 13/02/2012

This morning Auckland airport was apparently on alert after an Air New Zealand flight landed from Japan with a quarter of its passengers reportedly suffering from flu-like symptoms. According to this report, officials were alerted by the Captain just before they landed.

This story is quite interesting on a number of fronts. Japan is currently experiencing a nationwide epidemic of the H3N2 virus sub-type. To be clear this is not the same sub-type of flu that caused international hysteria a few years ago (swine flu, H1N1) or the particularly nasty sub-type caught from poultry (H5N1) and which the Americans fear has been ‘weaponised‘. Instead, H3N2 is a ‘run of the mill’ sub-type which often causes seasonal epidemics and is in the current flu vaccine.

Details appear a little sketchy but the scare seems to involve a group of Japanese high school students and some passengers on the plane wearing face masks. This begs the questions, did the appearance of people in masks freak out the other passengers and cause a panic? Or was it the common misunderstanding of what ‘flu-like’ symptoms actually are, that did it? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people claim to have the flu when all they have is a cold. Real flu results in chills, fever, muscle pains, headaches and fatigue. And sometimes nausea and vomiting. One passenger said two of the students vomited on the flight, but how many flights don’t have at least one or two people throw up?!

Anyway, it turns out none of the 70-odd passengers thought to have had flu actually had the flu. Crisis averted. If nothing else, the situation was an important practice run for what authorities would do if a plane load of sick people did land at Auckland airport. And begs the question, should we routinely screen passengers for infectious diseases? After all, air travel is a marvelous way for pathogens to get around the globe. Indeed, New Zealand has had a few of measles outbreaks start on an incoming plane.

TVNZ’s weekly current affairs programme, Close Up, used the opportunity to quiz Associate-Professor Michael Baker from the University of Otago, Wellington, about just this matter. Dr Baker made the interesting point that we have such strict biosecurity rules in place for protecting or fauna and flora, but nothing for screening for potentially deadly infectious diseases. One minor detail is that many infectious diseases are spread when people are displaying no symptoms of ill health, but it does make you wonder whether we should be doing more. A small country like New Zealand is probably an ideal place to trial such screening protocols. And with loads of scary viruses emerging from what is a vital trade area for NZ, protecting our borders more rigorously from infectious diseases may be a smart move.