KLIA and Changi have Ebola checks in place

KUALA LUMPUR - While many air passengers are questioning what they perceive to be lax measures against the spread of the Ebola virus, Malaysian and Singaporean authorities have several first line defences in place.

A check at the airports of both countries, confirmed this. But many of the measures to detect potential Ebola carriers are hidden from public view. It is almost as if the authorities do not want to alarm anybody.

At KL International Airport, a small partitioned-off booth was seen near a pillar by the Immigration counter with two thermographic cameras aimed at the moving walkways that lead out of the Satellite Terminal.

Two officials from the Health Ministry were monitoring passengers on purple negative screens. They were looking for flashes of green in a passenger's body, indicating high temperature and a fever.

"When we find one who has a fever, we would approach and direct that passenger to the quarantine area for a check.

"We would give them a questionnaire asking if they had been to West Africa in the last three weeks or if they had been in contact with anyone with Ebola," one of the officials said.

He said the booth was manned round the clock and had previously been used to check for yellow fever and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

When asked about potential Ebola carriers who do not show feverish symptoms, as Ebola usually has an incubation period of up to 21 days, the officials could not give a response.

The reporter was then taken to a clinic-like quarantine unit, about 100m away from the booth, where two doctors were present.

The place had a room for doctors to conduct tests and another room which could accommodate some seven patients at a time. The unit quarantined 26 people for yellow fever in 2013 and 17 from January to March this year.

Despite MERS and Ebola bunting and a rack with information pamphlets placed around the screening booth, arriving passengers interviewed failed to notice them. Dwight Cosgrove from Sydney said he didn't know he had been screened.

"I passed through Immigration like normal. There wasn't anything different there that made me think they were checking for Ebola. The Immigration guys were wearing face masks though," he said.

A student from Penang said he noticed the booth but didn't know what it was for.

When contacted, Immigration Department director-general Datuk Aloyah Mamat said her officers stationed at the entry points were tasked with identifying those arriving from the affected West African countries.

"We are assisting in identifying the passengers as the screenings are done by the Health Ministry's officers who have the expertise in Ebola," she said.

Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subra­maniam was earlier reported as saying that public health personnel had conducted simulated exercises to prepare themselves for a confirmed Ebola case in the country.

In Singapore, screening stations were found at each of the three terminals at Changi Airport, but hidden under the escalators leading to the Immigration checkpoint. Two to three volunteers are seen at each station. No thermographic cameras were however seen by the reporter at the airport.

A nurse, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the stations had been up for about two weeks and specifically targeted passengers with passports from Ebola-hit countries.

Immigration officers would direct all these passengers to the stations where they would be checked for fever and given a questionnaire, similar to those in KLIA, but there were few West African arrivals, she said.

The Singapore Health Ministry and Changi Airport conducted an emergency drill for a confirmed Ebola case in August.

It involved placing the patient inside a Portable Medical Isolation Unit (PMIU), after which a team in protective gear would take the unit to the Tan Tock Seng Hospital, according to Channel News Asia.

But despite the measures, passengers in Changi Airport were similarly unaware.

"They checked for Ebola meh?" said a Singaporean engineer, who gave his name as Eugene.

"I didn't even see a thermometer. Maybe they are so good we can't even see them!" he joked.