How Emirates flyers got sick: What we know so far

September 6, 2018
Health officials describe exact symptoms shown by passengers who have fallen ill

It’s something a lot of travellers would least expect. Your plane lands after a long-haul flight and suddenly you see ambulances, fire trucks and police waiting on the ground, and before you’re allowed to leave, you’re getting checked by some health personnel.

This was exactly the scene that met more the 521 passengers that were aboard flight 203 shortly after landing at the John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport in New York at 9:10am. “

So, I just landed from Dubai and now there is like tons of ambulances and fire trucks and police all over the place,” tweeted pop star Vanilla Ice, who was on the same plane.

Emirates confirmed that its flight from Dubai to New York was quarantined shortly after arrival on Wednesday as some of the passengers fell ill.

But what exactly happened? Was there a medical outbreak? Were there a lot of flyers who got sick? There have been conflicting information circulating around, and here’s what we know so far:

Total number of passengers who fell ill

A total of 19 people initially showed signs of an illness, but only ten landed in the hospital.

Emirates confirmed that out of the more than 500 passengers, 10 people – three passengers and seven crew members – were taken to the hospital for medical care and evaluation. “Nine passengers underwent additional medical screening at the site near the aircraft and were released afterwards,” an Emirates spokesperson said.

This was corroborated by Eric Phillips, press secretary of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio who said:

There were earlier unsubstantiated claims on social media that 100 people came down to some illness.

What did the passengers get sick with?

Benjamin Haynes, senior press officer for new media branch at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told Gulf News that the passengers came down with flu and gastrointestinal illness.

“CDC was alerted earlier this morning of an Emirates flight from Dubai that arrived at JFK with passengers, including crew members, complaining of illness, including cough, fever and symptoms of gastrointestinal illness,” Hayne said.

Erin Sykes, another passenger, said she noticed some of the passengers were already sick even before the double-decker plane departed Dubai International airport.

What about the rest of the passengers? Are they contagious?

The fact that the rest of the passengers were allowed to leave and have been cleared by customs indicates that they don't pose any risk to people around them.

According to Haynes of CDC, the passengers may receive a follow-up call from their health department, “just as a check-in.”

“We are requesting the passengers who have been evaluated and released to call their provider and health department if they develop any symptoms, and to give their travel history and report of incident,” said Haynes.

Where did the sick passengers come from?

The non-stop flight originated from Dubai, but there were reports that some of the affected passengers originally came from Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

As of this writing, neither Emirates nor the health officials , could not provide any additional information on the affected passengers’ travel history.

What else we don’t know:

Cause of the illness

While health officials have confirmed that the affected passengers had coughs, fevers and showed signs of gastrointestinal illness, it is not clear yet whether the illness was foodborne or caused by a virus.

Patients that have been admitted to the hospital are still under further observation and health personnel are still processing test results.

Was it MERS or travel-related virus?

People infected with Middle East respiratory syndrome-Corona virus (MERS-CoV) have shown a number of symptoms, like fever, cough and shortness of breath. Others reported having gastrointestinal symptoms, like diarrhea and nausea or vomiting, according to CDC.

The first outbreak of MERS was first discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and the height of the health crisis was in 2015.

As of March this year, seven more people were infected with MERS and there were two other reported deaths from the disease.