Enhanced Ebola Screening Underway at US Airports

Five US airports that receive the majority of travelers from West African nations will add new layers of entry screening.

Enhanced screening efforts commenced this week at 5 US airports in an effort to more effectively detect travelers who may have been exposed to the Ebola virus.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) increased screening efforts at airports that receive more than 94% of travelers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, which have been hit the hardest by the Ebola epidemic.

JFK International Airport in New York, which received nearly half of all travelers from the 3 West African nations in the past year, is set to begin the enhanced screening process today. Meanwhile, the Washington-Dulles, Newark, Chicago-O'Hare, and Atlanta international airports will implement the new screening practices next week.

"We work to continuously increase the safety of Americans," said CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, in a press release. "We believe these new measures will further protect the health of Americans, understanding that nothing we can do will get us to absolute zero risk until we end the Ebola epidemic in West Africa."

The enhanced screening efforts come on the heels of the Ebola-related death of Thomas Eric Duncan, who allegedly lied on his airport screening questionnaire before traveling to Texas from Liberia.

After having their passports reviewed, travelers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone will be observed for signs of illness and queried on a series of health- and exposure-related information. Trained medical staff will also take the temperatures of travelers utilizing a non-contact thermometer.

If travelers exhibit a fever or other symptoms, or if the health questionnaire reveals red flags for Ebola exposure, then a public health officer will evaluate them at a CDC quarantine station, take an additional temperature reading, and make a health assessment.

Travelers who require further evaluation or monitoring will be transferred to the appropriate public health entity. Those who do not show symptoms or have no known history of exposure to Ebola will receive self-monitoring information.

The current outbreak in West Africa has killed nearly 4000 people with more than 8000 confirmed and suspected cases.

Since exit screening began in the 3 West African nations 2 months ago, 77 individuals of 36,000 who were screened were denied access to a flight. None of those passengers were diagnosed with Ebola, but many were diagnosed with malaria, which is not transmissible from person to person.

In addition to standard public health practices such as patient isolation and contact tracing, officials hope the enhanced screening will mirror the containment approach utilized in Nigeria, which successfully contained the outbreak in that country.

"CBP personnel will continue to observe all travelers entering the United States for general overt signs of illnesses at all US ports of entry, and these expanded screening measures will provide an additional layer of protection to help ensure the risk of Ebola in the United States is minimized," said Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson in a press release. "CBP, working closely with CDC, will continue to assess the risk of the spread of Ebola into the United States and take additional measures, as necessary, to protect the American people."