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Two major health scares at US airports related to people returning from Muslim Mecca pilgrimage

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Muslim worshippers pray and circumambulate around the Kaaba, which is considered Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on August 25, 2018. (BANDAR AL-DANDANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Two major health scares this week at U.S. airports were related to inbound flights with people returning from the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, U.S. health officials said Friday.

What happened?

On Wednesday, an emergency response team with mobile diagnostic equipment was sent to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York following reports that more than 100 passengers aboard an Emirates airlines flight from Dubai were having flu-like symptoms.

Health officials evaluated nearly 549 passengers at the airport, and sent a total of 11 people to a local hospital for more testing, Dr. Martin Cetron, director for the division of Global Migration and Quarantine at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Reuters news.

Ten people were tested for respiratory viruses and bacteria in hopes of ruling out serious pathogens that could pose a public health threat, Reuters news reported. Two people tested positive for an extremely contagious influenza A virus.

One of the two was gravely ill with pneumonia and had co-infected another person with a respiratory virus, Cetron told the news outlet.

A third person tested positive for a cold virus. Another person showed signs of food poisoning, according to the report.

Health officials in New York were preparing to quarantine a large group of ill passengers in an area at the airport, but it was not as serious as expected.

“It was a much smaller incident. That’s not uncommon,” Cetron said. “Often the incoming information from multiple sources can be exaggerated beyond what we really find.”

All of the passengers with respiratory symptoms tested negative for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. MERS is a highly infectious and deadly respiratory infection that was first identified in the Middle East in 2012, the report stated.

Seven crew members who boarded the flight in Dubai but were not at the pilgrimage, tested negative for several respiratory infections, according to Cetron.

On Thursday, two flights arriving in Philadelphia from Europe were screened by medical teams after 12 passengers reported flu-like symptoms. One of them was in Mecca. The CDC received no advance warning about those two flights. But several travelers complained of feeling ill, and that triggered a medical review of 250 passengers from those flights, according to Reuters.

One person tested positive for the flu and 12 passengers had sore throats and coughs, a CDC spokesperson told the news outlet.

Anything else?

U.S. health teams did the testing in part to rule out MERS, even though it was unlikely cause of the illnesses.

“Our most critical issue was to rule several respiratory illnesses of urgent public health significance,” Cetron said.

The CDC monitors databases to track outbreaks of infectious disease that could pose a treat in the U.S., Cetron told the news outlet.

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