Auburn University expert on thermal imaging says U.S. not meeting international standards for Ebola temperature screening, recommends infrared cameras in airports

Published: November 19, 2014
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AUBURN UNIVERSITY – The United States is not meeting international standards during its airport screenings for pandemics such as Ebola, says Auburn University Professor David Pascoe, who serves as the U.S. delegate on the International Standards Committee for Thermal Imagers for Human Temperature Screening.

"We need to be measuring a person's core temperature with infrared cameras, which the current screening with lasers does not do," said Pascoe, a kinesiology professor in the College of Education's School of Kinesiology. "The current screenings, as shown in the media, are capturing a temperature measure taken from various locations from which large differences in temperature are observed over a small surface area."

The committee adopted a measure in 2003 calling for the use of infrared cameras focusing on the full face to provide a thermal image of the skin face temperature. The reading indicates the temperature of the inner canthus, the area between the eyes and above the nose, which is an indicator of the core temperature.

Pascoe says temperature screening for fever cannot distinguish the type of disease, such as Ebola, bird flu, H1N1 or common flu, but is beneficial as a prescreening technique to avoid the spread of communicable diseases.

"The infrared camera works like a digital camera, but detects the heat emitted from the skin and provides a temperature map of the skin surface. It is not harmful," Pascoe said. "Lasers used in current screenings cannot be pointed near the eyes and must be pointed at a place such as the arm. You will get many different readings from one person's skin just my moving the point of aim."

The international standards were developed after a well-publicized, but less than effective attempt to use infrared cameras to screen for SARS in Singapore in 2003. Pascoe says a problem in accuracy was encountered, though, because the images were taken of groups of people, not individuals. He says readings are needed for each person, which is done by filling 60 percent of the camera screen with the person's face.

"We have had infrared technology since the 1950s and it has become much more advanced, to the point where it is economically possible to have small, handheld infrared cameras in airports," he said.

Pascoe recommends that the U.S. conduct screening as airline passengers go through Customs.

"It would take less than 10 seconds per person," Pascoe said. "The cost of a small, handheld camera is around $20,000 and the training time for a person learning to operate it is minimal. Airport officials would need to determine the number of cameras needed to meet their passenger count. The costs are minimal versus the health and economic impact associated with an outbreak."

The key is having the camera calibrated correctly to show particular colors for certain body temperatures. If the facial image is white, the person's temperature is 38.5 C, or 101 F, which would be the possible indication of an illness such as Ebola, according to Pascoe. The person could then be taken for a full examination.

"You would also have to isolate passengers from the plane until the person was evaluated, so the airports would need to work with health officials on how to do that," Pascoe said.

"If we do not abide by the standards set forth for thermal detection of individuals with fevers, we are not able to get reliable results and likely to miss individuals with potential spreadable diseases."

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