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Airline Passengers (Infectious Diseases)

Volume 886: debated on Monday 10 February 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will set up a departmental inquiry into the circumstances whereby a Sabena airline's passenger reported to have been suffering from Lassa fever was carried from Nigeria to London Airport via Brussels in unrestricted contact with other passengers and to examine what international guidelines exist covering the transportation by commercial airlines of passengers known to be suffering from infectious diseases; and if he will make a statement.

On 30th January my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security stated that the circumstances of this case had been fully investigated, and indicated that his chief medical officer was examining the issues with a view to minimising any risk.

The International Air Transport Association has recommended practices in connection with the carriage of sick or infectious persons, and many airlines—including British Airways and British Caledonian Airways—have special internal instructions. The World Health Organisation has recently issued specific guidance about the handling of Lassa fever victims and suspects and their transport, where assential. If an airline captain has doubts about a passenger's health, he would normally require medical clearance before accepting him, as I understand was done in the recent case. I shall examine with my hon. Friend the possible scope for further safeguards in this matter, but the real problem seems to lie in diagnosing the infection prior to embarkation.

Is the Minister aware that the House will be grateful for his reply? Is he also aware that his hon. Friend the Minister of State in his answer to me on 30th January said:

"To refuse admission to this country to any British person who was unwell and who wished to return to the United Kingdom for treatment from a tropical area would raise very serious issues of principle and practicability."—[Official Report, 30th January 1975; Vol. 885, c. 302.]
Will he, therefore, consider what steps can be taken to reach international agreement on substantially improved arrangements for transporting passengers by air to this country when they are returning with infectious tropical diseases?

I have already indicated in what was perhaps a rather long answer that IATA has recommended practices relating to the carriage of sick or infectious persons and that the World Health Organisation issued specific guidance about this particular disease some little time ago. Therefore, international action is being taken. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government do not view the matter with any degree of complacency.

Does my hon. Friend accept that, while we sympathise very much with the captain of the aircraft who must have had to take the medical opinion of people at the airport, it is important that these international rules should be enforced, because there is a great likelihood that people who come into contact with Lassa fever will not only take the infection themselves but spread it widely? Will he, therefore, ensure that the airlines concerned take special precautions when they know that these regulations exist?

My hon. Friend must realise that all responsible airlines take this matter most seriously. There is no evidence to suggest the contrary. The difficulty with this particular disease is its diagnosis. I am advised that it is very difficult to diagnose the disease and that there is at present only one organisation in the world, in Atlanta, Georgia, which has the facilities to carry out the necessary analyses that make diagnosis possible.

Is the Minister aware that there is widespread concern about this issue and that recommendations and guidance may not be sufficient? Will he consider whether regulations should be introduced? Would not the ICAO have a rôle to play in this direction?

If additional regulations might be of help, we will consider the matter. However, as I indicated to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody), the difficulty lies not in having regulations but in having effective diagnosis. This is most difficult with a rare disease, as this one is.