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False barriers
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 06 - 2009

Airports around the world rush to buy the most advanced technologies to make their citizens safe from terrorism to viruses. Is it effective or is it a business deal, asks Nashwa Abdel-Tawab
While the Swine Flu may have not been as bad as originally thought, the fact is that it's better to be overly protective than sorry. Or at least, that's what governments think.
It's just like anti-terrorist airport controls. These were increased to stupid levels after September 11 with measures like arbitrary limits on liquids, "Please Remove Laptop From Bag" rules, and the now-classic "Please Remove Your Shoes and Coat"-- measures that only add hassle without actually increasing security. Not only they have been bypassed and rendered useless on countless occasions, but there are dozens of security breakpoints around airports everywhere that can be used by the bad guys to do bad things, even now.
People got used to those measures and everyone accepted them, getting back to sleep into this false dream of total safety.
The same is happening with medical controls. Hoping to spot feverish passengers who may be infected with H1N1 swine flu, airport officials every where are buying thermal-imaging devices from manufacturers such as Fluke in Everett and Oregon-based Flir. The machines can tell if your body temperature is going up regardless of the idea that many contagious diseases don't cause serious symptoms early enough to stop the spreading. Intrigued by the advertising slogan "Get 'em while they're hot" made people question if these devices are among the precautions adopted to save them from the virus or just aim to bring profits to some companies.
A spokesman for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva says the global agency "generally doesn't believe in this measure." Some even consider them "an unproven technology" based on their performance during the last global disease scare, the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
Thermal scanning in Vancouver and Toronto during the SARS epidemic seemed to accomplish little. In screening nearly 4.6 million passengers, scanners from several manufacturers, including Flir, spotted 1,435 passengers with elevated temperatures, none of whom turned out to have SARS.
Still, companies are promoting the current generation of devices -- basically heat- sensing cameras with analytical software -- as a smart and effective tool for identifying travellers who should get additional scrutiny. The software now focuses on a spot at the inner corner of the eye that best indicates core body temperature, he says.
One problem is that travelers infected with flu may not yet be showing symptoms such as fever, says a WHO spokesman. Then there's the issue of false positives -- "thermal scanners measure the skin and not the core temperature," which can be affected "by physical activity, stress, alcohol and drug use, nicotine, caffeine, circulatory problems and injury," says the Canadian report.
Right now the fact is that, no matter how many controls we put in airports, if there's a real outbreak of something really nasty, with no cure whatsoever, we are all doomed. They can put all the barriers in the air they want, but there's no evidence that it will do much good. In any case we should all get to the airport early to pass through all airport terrorist and medical checkpoints to avoid any delay.


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