Coronavirus Screening: Measures at Dhaka airport still found wanting
12:00 AM, February 05, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 07:13 PM, February 05, 2020

Coronavirus Screening: Measures at airport still not enough

A plane carrying passengers from the Chinese city of Kunming landed at the capital’s Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport around 2:15pm yesterday. An aircraft of Turkish Airlines arrived from Istanbul around the same time.

Passengers from both the planes got off and walked through the boarding bridges and then the thermal scanner placed at a passageway.  At one point, health officials stepped in and the passengers from China were separated from the others for further screening.

“Under the existing set-up, it’s almost impossible to prevent passengers landing in different flights from coming in each other’s contact,” said a health official at the airport, wishing not to be named.

Inbound passengers from different countries, including China, also have to stand in the same queues for immigration, he said, pointing out that if any passenger carries coronavirus, the others might be at risk.

Talking on the issue, experts said although the government has taken measures to prevent the virus from entering the country, a slight oversight could turn costly.

They stressed the need for keeping passengers from China isolated from the others during the entire screening process as many patients do not show any symptoms during the incubation period.  

The novel coronavirus -- the seventh strain of the virus -- was first detected in China’s Wuhan city in December. At least 427 people have died with more than 20,500 confirmed cases around the world.

Most of the cases have been reported in China.

On an average, 12,000 passengers land at the airport in Dhaka daily. All of them have to go through the thermal screening and those coming from China are later screened by doctors separately.

In the last 15 days till yesterday, 6,789 passengers from China have been screened at the airport, said the doctors.

“The way the passengers are being screened at the airport, nobody can guarantee that the virus would not be transmitted. It’s a serious health concern and we should be careful about every minor details,” Prof Saif Ullah Munshi, a virologist, told The Daily Star yesterday.

“It’s basics that any passenger suspected of carrying the virus must remain separated from others,” said Prof Saif, also the chairman of the BSMMU’s virology department.

Asked, Dr Shajriar Sajjat, assistant health director at the airport, said, “There is no separate immigration booth for passengers from China. As a result, the purpose of the screening is not being fully met now.”

“We asked our higher authorities to take steps in this regard. It has not been done yet,” he said.

Meanwhile, health officials at the HSIA said lack of adequate manpower and other facilities were making it difficult for them to screen inbound passengers.

There are only seven doctors, 10 nurses and 20 staff members assigned by the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), they said. 

Besides, two of the seven doctors were not on-duty. One of them is kept in quarantine after he accompanied the 312 Bangladeshis who returned from China’s Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. The other one was on sick leave.

The five other doctors were struggling hard to screen passengers round the clock, they said.

Recently, three thermal scanners were installed at the airport, including one at the VIP terminal, to check body temperature of passengers.

There are eight boarding bridges at the airport and all passengers are screened through the scanners once they step out of the bridges.

Usually, multiple flights from different countries land at the airport around the same time and passengers have to gather at certain places, including in the immigration queues.

“It’s tough for us to maintain the standard with the shortage of manpower, especially when multiple flights arrive carrying Chinese nationals,” Dr Zahidul Islam, assistant health director of the airport, told The Daily Star.

Contacted, Dr Abul Kalam Azad, director general of the DGHS, acknowledged that there could be chances of virus transmission under the current arrangements at the airport.

He, however, claimed the chances were slim.

Kalam said they would discuss the matter with the immigration department.

He also said 10 new doctors would join work at the airport today.

He then reiterated that all measures were in place at the airport to prevent the virus from entering the country. “We cannot guarantee but we can say we have been able to reduce almost all probabilities.”

“We have to keep in mind the fact that almost all the cases are related to China, especially Wuhan. The number of cases outside China is insignificant, so we should not be panicked.

“We are working complying with the guidelines of WHO and other international organisations. We are fully prepared to contain any possible spread of the virus,” he added.

Meanwhile, the 312 Bangladeshis, who were brought back from Wuhan in a special chartered flight on Saturday, were doing fine at the capital’s Ashkona Hajj Camp, where they are kept in quarantine, said a government press release.

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