Natalie Terry, Intelligence Analyst at Security Exchange
Natalie is an Intelligence Analyst for Asia and the South Pacific. Before joining Security Exchange, Natalie studied Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton.
Disease in Transit
In January, a state-wide measles warning was issued in Melbourne, Victoria, after an infected passenger travelled from Dubai to Melbourne. The patient contracted the infection overseas and was infectious during the long-haul flight. The health authorities urged all passengers aboard the Emirates flight EK404 to seek immediate medical attention. Isolation is key to preventing the spread of such airborne diseases.
Some airborne diseases can have fatal consequences if not diagnosed and treated in time. Bacterial meningitis is an example of an airborne disease which can kill within a short period of time if the patient doesn’t seek medical attention immediately. State-wide health alerts – as issued by Melbourne officials – are essentially a contingency measure designed to limit the potentially fatal impact of an airborne disease when a group of people have already been exposed to it in an enclosed environment for a prolonged period of time.
Damage-control measures are often thought of as a last resort; however, in the case of infectious diseases in transit, they are often the first action to be taken. While isolation is key to preventing the spread of airborne diseases, stopping infected passengers from boarding public transport is an unrealistic solution. Over the last few decades, the technology boom and globalisation has led to an increasingly inter-connected world with more long-haul flights than ever before. Unfortunately, this has also enabled diseases to spread to different parts of the world more easily than ever before.
The security implications of this heightened level of disease spreading are extensive. Not only could an entire state suddenly be put on alert for a foreign airborne disease, but such a situation could be exploited as a weapon. The deadly potential of using a harmful airborne substance as a bio-chemical weapon has already been realised. In Tokyo 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult movement (now known as ‘Aleph’) released the sarin toxin on three lines of the Tokyo Metro. The attack was timed to coincide with rush hour for maximum impact. While 12 people were killed, the fatality figures could have been much higher, if the composition of the toxin had been made much stronger. Liquid sarin easily evaporates into a vapour, quickly spreading into the surrounding environment. A year previously, members of Aum Shinrikyo had already killed eight people in a sarin nerve gas attack targeting judges in Matsumoto.
If you were to visit Japan today and travel on the metro, most commuters will be wearing a surgical face mask: a cheap and effective way to prevent the spread of harmful airborne substances. While preventing the spread of the common cold or flu presides as the main reason for wearing a face mask, the terror of the 1995 sarin attack has certainly not been forgotten.
Face masks and additional transport security measures – such as X-raying luggage and limiting the amount of liquid allowed in hand luggage on planes – mitigate the risk of a harmful airborne substance from spreading quickly. However, it’s difficult for preventative measures to be strongly implemented across all forms of public transport. Furthermore, outside of Japan, if a passenger is unaware they have contracted a disease they are unlikely to be wearing a face mask – therefore contingency planning is heavily relied upon and needs to be an effective response. From a security point of view, damage-control and treatment must be prioritised where prevention can’t be guaranteed.
We regularly share news of infectious diseases, many of which can be prevented through vaccination. If you are in a position to get vaccinated, please do!
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