A Qatar Airways flight that landed in Doha yesterday was met with two ambulances and medical personnel in gloves and masks, following concerns that passengers aboard the plane were sick with flu-like symptoms.
The incident occurred at a time when fear about the spread of illnesses like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Ebola is reaching new highs.
Speaking to Doha News, a Qatar resident who was onboard the flight from Yangon said she and several others had been part of a tour group traveling around Myanmar for one week. Some had come down with sore throats and colds, and during the trip home, one of the passengers had asked a stewardess for a Panadol.
The resident, Tracy Glenn, who is a registered nurse, tweeted about the incident yesterday. She said the stewardess thought the woman had a fever, and asked if there were any doctors or nurses onboard.
Glenn responded to the call and checked her friend, who did not have a fever. “We spoke for a few minutes and she told me she was fine, and I went back to my seat.”
Later, a nurse or doctor was requested to see another passenger. This man, who was not part of the tour group, was pale and sweaty and complaining of stomach pains, Glenn said. She again responded to the call and assessed the man, along with a physician.
“We were concerned that it could have been serious – but he also turned out to be fine,” she added.
Finally, toward the end of the flight, a stewardess began walking with one of the tour group members down the aisles, pointing out everybody who was in the Myanmar tour group.
The pilot was informed that some passengers were ill, and when the plane landed, Glenn said she and her peers were asked to remain on the airplane. Two large ambulances and healthcare providers in gloves and masks could be seen from the windows.
“They let us everybody else disembark, (but) kept us on the plane. They said ‘you are going to go into the airport and get checked.’
…A man in military uniform comes on, and I told him that some of our group had mild colds,” Glenn said.
Then they changed their minds and allowed the passengers to get off the plane, she added.
As they got off, Glenn spoke to the pilot, who said he was just following protocol.
“I don’t understand their protocol – I think they need to refine it a little bit. The cabin crew had written on her report that my co-traveler had a fever of 36C. This is a normal temperature, not a fever,” Glenn said, adding that people on the flight were getting worried about what was happening.
Qatar Airways has not yet responded to a request about the incident or if new protocols have been introduced following rising concerns about the spread of MERS and Ebola.
Speaking to Doha News, Glenn said that the crew might have been worried her group had MERS.
“I don’t know if they were worried about Ebola. MERS is a viral respiratory disease, so if you cough or sneeze, the droplets can travel about three feet.”
According to the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, viruses are spread when someone either inhales infected droplets in the air (from when an infected person coughs or sneezes), or when one comes in direct contact with an infected person’s secretions (by kissing, touching, or sharing objects such as spoons and forks).
The flu virus can also be transferred through an infected person’s hands, by touching smooth surfaces such as doorknobs, handles, television remotes, computer keyboards and telephones. When one touches their hands to their nose, eyes, or mouth, the flu virus gets absorbed.
One reason why Qatar Airways may be on high alert is due to an incident that transpired earlier this month, when the World Health Organization disclosed that a 29-year-old Saudi woman with MERS may have been contagious during a September flight from Qatar to Austria.
The national carrier is the only airline that flies directly from Doha to Vienna. At the time, WHO said:
“The Austrian health authorities assume that the patient was infectious prior to, and during the international flights. Follow-up with passengers on the flight is ongoing and personal data of the crew on the flight has been communicated to Qatar.”
Meanwhile, other airlines around the world also appear to be maintaining vigilance when it comes to contagion, after a Liberian passenger infected with Ebola flew into the US and eventually died of the disease earlier this month.
Last week for example, a passenger on a U.S. Airways flight from Philadelphia to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, made a joke about having the virus while onboard the plane.
The man sneezed or coughed when he made his announcement, prompting the flight to be grounded and people in blue ‘hazmat’ suits to board the plane.
Notably, Ebola does not spread through the air like MERS, which is a respiratory virus.
Rather, Ebola is transmitted “via direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people, and with surfaces and materials (e.g. bedding, clothing) contaminated with these fluids,” according to WHO.
Still, amid widespread calls that the US government do more to keep Ebola out, five airports there are planning to begin health screenings for some travelers this week.
CNN reports that the screenings would apply to passengers originating from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
Their temperatures will be taken and questions about their health and possible exposure to Ebola would be asked at airports in New York Washington DC, Newark, Chicago and Atlanta.