U.S. health officials revealed on Friday that major health scares at two U.S. airports involving inbound flights are tied to pilgrims returning from Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims take at least once in their lifetime, and which ended in late August.
Health officials on Wednesday sent an emergency response team to the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York after more than 100 Emirates passengers from Dubai showed flu-like symptoms.
In an interview with Reuters, Martin Cetron, director for the division of Global Migration and Quarantine at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that 11 of the nearly 549 passengers evaluated at the airport were sent to a local hospital for further testing.
Ten were tested for respiratory pathogen in an attempt to rule out serious infections that may pose health threats to the public.
"Our most critical issue was to rule several respiratory illnesses of urgent public health significance," Cetron said.
Two tested positive for a virulent type of the influenza A virus. One of the two was found gravely ill with pneumonia and also infected with another respiratory virus. Another passenger was positive for the cold virus.
Seven crew members of the flight who were not at the pilgrimage tested negative for respiratory infections that could be of public health concern.
Another health scare happened at the Philadelphia International Airport the next day. Medical teams had to screen passengers who boarded two American Airlines flights from Europe when 12 passengers showed flu-like symptoms. One of the sick passengers visited Mecca for the Muslim pilgrimage.
Of the 11 passengers taken to the hospital for evaluation, 10 had respiratory symptoms and one exhibited signs of food poisoning. The 10 patients were also tested for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, but none was positive. MERS is a highly contagious viral respiratory illness first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012.
The incident prompted a medical review of 250 passengers from the two flights. Authorities said that this was done as a precautionary measure.
"While airport operations were not affected, out of an abundance of caution, officials performed medical evaluations and assessments," the Philadelphia International Airport said on Twitter.
CDC spokesman Benjamin Haynes said that CDC and public health officers worked with emergency medical service personnel and officials from the Customs and Border Protection to evaluate the sick passengers.
Twelve were found to have coughs and sore throats, and one tested positive for flu. The CDC said that this is not unusual since flu is a year-round virus.