By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Medical teams at New York's JFK airport, armed with Ebola questionnaires and temperature guns, began screening travelers from three West African countries on Saturday as U.S. health authorities stepped up efforts to stop the spread of the virus.
John F. Kennedy Airport is the first of five U.S. airports to start enhanced screening of U.S.-bound travelers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Those countries have seen most of the deaths from the outbreak, which has claimed more than 4,000 lives.
Nearly all passengers traveling to the United States from those countries arrive at JFK, Newark Liberty, Washington Dulles, Chicago O'Hare and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta. The new procedures will begin at the other four airports on Thursday.
Mohamed Dabo, a 22-year-old Indiana man who arrived at JFK from Guinea after a stopover in Paris, said he was surprised by the intensity of the screening.
"I don't really know what was going on in there but it was kind of crazy," he said. "I sat down there for two hours."
The screenings, which will affect only a tiny fraction of overall passengers arriving at JFK, are being conducted by the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP), under direction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There are no direct flights from the affected countries, so CBP staff identify passengers to screen by looking at trip information and checking passports, R. Gil Kerlikowske, the CBP commissioner, told a news conference at JFK on Saturday morning.
Using infrared temperature guns, staff will check for elevated temperatures among passengers whose journeys began or included a stop in one of the three African countries.
The CBP has temporarily authorized U.S. Coast Guard personnel to take temperatures, but the CBP will contract "professional medical staff" in the future, Kerlikowske said.
Screeners will also assess passengers for signs of illness and ask about their health and whether they may have come into contact with an Ebola patient.
For those with a fever or other symptoms or possible exposure to Ebola, the CDC said, authorities may decide to take a person to a hospital or to quarantine or isolate the patient.
Buntouradu Bamgoura, 54, who was born in Guinea and lives in the United States, said she was handed a list of guidelines for screened passengers who were allowed to enter. The sheet offers tips for self-monitoring and instructions for doctors treating patients with Ebola-like symptoms.
JFK is the entry point for nearly half the roughly 150 travelers who arrive daily in the United States from the three West African countries, and those passengers amount to about one-tenth of 1 percent of all international daily arrivals at the airport, the CDC said.
Edward Lama Wonkeryor, 60, a professor of communications and African studies at a Liberian university, said going through the enhanced screening was educational for him, but he said the push to staunch Ebola was stigmatizing West Africans.
"There seems to be an over-exaggeration of the impact of this deadly disease where stigmatization becomes apparent in the process," Wonkeryor said after a trip from Liberia via Brussels.
"That is wrong because this is a disease that can be controlled based on what medical experts are telling us."
The CDC said the airport screening is just one aspect of an overall strategy to fight the spread of Ebola.
"No matter how many of these procedures are put into place, we can't get the risk to zero," said Martin Cetron, director of the CDC's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine. "This new entry-screening procedure is just one part of a multi-layered approach," he told the JFK news conference.
That said, Lawrence Gostin, who teaches global health law at Georgetown Law School, believes such monitoring "had virtually no effectiveness" when used in Canada and Asia during the SARS outbreak in 2002. He said travelers with a fever can evade detection by taking over-the-counter medication.
People also could lie on questionnaires, said Dr. David Mabey, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "People may not fill them in very truthfully. They don't want to be delayed for hours," Mabey said.
Passengers are also screened when they depart from the three West African countries. In two months since those screenings began, only 77 of 36,000 travelers were denied boarding, the CDC said. Many were diagnosed later with malaria, none with Ebola.
Thomas Eric Duncan, who died of Ebola in Dallas this week, did not have a fever when screened in Liberia before departure. He said on a questionnaire that he had not been in contact with anyone infected with Ebola. Liberian officials said he was in contact with a woman who later died. A friend of his family said Duncan did not know the woman had Ebola.
(Additional reporting and writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Frank McGurty and Frances Kerry)