SAN JOSE, Calif. – Five passengers on a flight from Tokyo were cleared of a mystery illness from Asia after the jetliner was stopped on the tarmac in what first looked like a public health emergency.
American Airlines Flight 128 from Tokyo to San Jose stopped short of the gate and was flanked by ambulances after the airline alerted the San Jose airport about the scare, said Todd Burke, a spokesman for the airline. After 10 hours in the air, the 125 passengers and 14 crew members waited as health officials in surgical masks came on board.
But when doctors had cleared all five people hours later, the situation turned into a testament to fears surrounding little-understood severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which has killed more than 60 people worldwide.
"It took a tremendous amount of resources to do this," said Dr. Karen Smith, the Santa Clara County health officer who boarded the plane. "If every flight from Asia has someone coughing on it and has to go through the same procedure, I just don't see how that's feasible."
Doctors cleared two passengers on board and sent three others to a hospital. Those three did not appear particularly ill and were quickly discharged, said Tad Hurst, an emergency room doctor at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.
Of primary concern was whether they had spent time in areas where SARS outbreaks have occurred -- in mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Hanoi, Vietnam. Initial reports were that four of the five who reported feeling sick may have boarded in Tokyo after flying from Hong Kong, said Joy Alexiou, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clara County Public Health Department.
More than 1,600 cases of the illness have been reported so far worldwide, including 69 cases in the United States. None of the U.S. cases have been fatal.
Last week, evidence surfaced that SARS can be caught on airplanes. Hong Kong authorities said several tourists on a China Air flight caught the disease after flying with another SARS-infected passenger.