False SARS alarm aboard U.S.-bound jet

SAN JOSE, Calif., April 1 (UPI) -- Fears that the fast-moving respiratory ailment known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, had broken out aboard an American Airlines flight from Tokyo were found to have been a false alarm Tuesday, but not before the aircraft and its passengers were detained for more than two hours in a safe corner of the San Jose airport.

Health workers in protective suits removed three people from Flight 128, which was kept a healthy distance from the terminal after five passengers and crew complained of symptoms similar to the mysterious disease.


Two of the passengers were found not to have SARS symptoms after being examined aboard the plane. The other three were checked out at a nearby hospital and cleared.

"They do not fit the criteria for SARS," said Dr. Karen Smith, assistant health officer for Santa Clara County. "Nobody on that plane had suspect SARS."


SARS is a highly contagious and stubborn ailment that has infected more than 1,800 people worldwide and has killed 62. While most of the cases have reported in Asia, there were 69 cases reported in the United States by the Centers for Disease Control.

Airport spokeswoman Cathy Gaskell told United Press International that the pilot of the jet nonetheless deserved praise for his "quick thinking" as airports statewide keep a close out for signs of SARS among the thousands of passengers who arrive in the state from Asia every day.

"The pilot requested to be removed away from the terminal area," said Gaskell.

Gov. Gray Davis said county health agencies statewide had been briefed earlier on how to appropriately handle suspected SARS cases that have been popping up primarily in the San Francisco Bay area and around Los Angeles.

"Santa Clara County's response today shows that California's public health network is up to the job," Davis told a hastily called news conference in Sacramento. "Our public health network responded swiftly and appropriately and they should be commended."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that the number of SARS cases worldwide grew by 182 from the previous day. There are now 1,804 cases, and 62 deaths have been reported in 15 nations. Most of the cases have been in Hong Kong and other Asian nations with 69 cases reported in the United States.


Fever and difficulty breathing after having traveled to Asia are definitive signs of SARS, although some health officials have cautioned that common and less-threatening respiratory ailments picked up in Asia often have similar symptoms.

CDC officials were attempting to locate around 140 Americans, most of them from California, who had stayed at the Metropole in Hong Kong in late February at the same time a doctor who discovered the disease was stricken while staying at the hotel.

"California leads the nation in the number of guests who have been to the hotel," Dr. Laurene Mascola, head of the acute communicable disease unit of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

San Francisco health officials reported Monday that a suspected SARS case had surfaced in the city, raising the number of suspected cases in the Bay Area to nine.

Los Angeles and Riverside counties have reported eight suspected cases; Hawaii has reported five cases, all from individuals who have visited Asia.

Los Angeles health officials said Tuesday of the seven cases; one remains hospitalized in good condition.

The hotel is believed to be the spawning ground of the growing pandemic, although airliners may also have become vulnerable to the baffling virus.


"There is something in the close relationship between a patient and people sitting around them," Dr. David Heymann, the CDC's executive director for communicable diseases, told a news conference Tuesday. "Surveys of airline crews and passengers will be very important to determine whether there has been any transmission in those airplanes."

Fear of the disease, which does not respond to conventional treatments, has apparently caused many Americans to cancel planned trips to the Far East.

"It's kind of serious when people in Hong Kong are wearing masks," travel agent Cam Tsai of Westminster told the Los Angeles Times. "I wouldn't go, either."

(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)

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