Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Fidley Watch: Bugs

By Chris Philips, Managing Editor

Last week a subscriber who is a longshoreman at the Port of Los Angeles alerted us to a 9,000-TEU container carrier that was “yellow flagged” because of a gypsy moth infestation discovered by US Customs and Border Protection agents. Not to worry – the ship was quarantined and fumigated, and subsequently released.

The idea of quarantine for a pestilent vessel makes sense, and these cases are handled in a routine manner, on a fairly regular basis, and sent on their way.

Of more concern would be the case of a vessel arriving with a crewmember (or members) suffering from a communicable disease. Rest assured – in this instance, the local branch of the Atlanta, Georgia-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would be the entity tasked with addressing the issue.

A media spokesperson for the CDC provided us with the procedure following the case of a cargo ship that arrives with an onboard death or illness:
Federal Regulations require the master of a ship destined for a US port of entry to immediately report any death or illness among the ship’s passengers or crew, including those who have disembarked or have been removed from the ship due to illness or death. Reports must also (immediately) be made to the nearest CDC Quarantine Station.

Required reporting includes persons displaying signs or symptoms of a fever of greater than 100 degrees lasting more than 48 hours or any fever accompanied by a rash, swelling of the lymph glands or jaundice. Certain cases of diarrhea are also reportable, and cruise ships reporting more than 13 diarrhea cases do so to the CDC Vessel Sanitation Program.

For passengers and crew, the CDC has a fairly straightforward procedure, but what is the procedure for an unexpected traveler, or stowaway?

The US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) have no hard numbers for people who enter the country as stowaways, but have no fear- the regulations are clear-cut:

If caught while aboard ship, a stowaway must be kept locked up, treated in a humane manner, and turned over to the INS, who then fine the ship and repatriate the stowaways to their country of origin, along with an escort, at the vessel’s expense. The cost to vessel and crew is pretty good incentive to encourage operators to do their best to ensure that no one manages to stow away.

Even though thousands of stowaways are discovered every year, many probably aren’t.

Last month a group of 35 men, women and children were found inside a shipping container in the UK. They were discovered because one of their number had died, and the remaining “passengers” we’re screaming for help. Although the group was from Afghanistan, the West African ports of Lagos, Nigeria and Abidjan, Ivory Coast are the leading ports of embarkation for stowaways. They’re also “ground zero” for the Ebola virus. Recent container stowaway discoveries include 12 people traveling from Ghana and Nigeria to Spain.

With the current outbreak of a particularly virulent and deadly virus in West Africa raging inside or adjacent to the two countries with the highest number of stowaways, how is the US protecting itself from this very real threat?

Another CDC spokesperson told us there are currently no enhanced efforts to screen or address migrants who arrive in the US in a mode other than airline travel. When asked what the commercial maritime industry could do to safeguard against the possibility of sick stowaways, her response was, “I don’t know.” We’re not reassured.