Objective: To assess the effectiveness of the Australian border entry screening program to detect arriving travellers with symptoms of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Design and setting: Descriptive study of outcomes of screening at Australian airports and seaports between 5 April 2003 and 16 June 2003. To determine the number of international travellers who were symptomatic on arrival in Australia but missed by screening, data were obtained on the number of arrivals screened and the number with symptoms (from the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service [AQIS]), as well as the number of people investigated for SARS (from the Australian SARS Case Register).
Results: There were 1.84 million arrivals into Australia during the study period, and 794 were referred for screening to AQIS staff. Of these, the findings in four travellers were consistent with the World Health Organization case definition for SARS, and they were referred by the Chief Quarantine Officers to designated hospitals for further investigation. None of these people was confirmed to have SARS. One person reported as a probable SARS case acknowledged being symptomatic on arrival, but had been missed by border screening.
Conclusions: The low identification rate was attributed to the low prevalence of SARS, the use of exit screening by affected countries, and the subjective measures used in the screening process. With current knowledge about SARS, border screening should focus on educating incoming travellers, especially groups at high risk of transmitting the disease (the elderly and those with underlying chronic illnesses). Objective screening measures should be used during SARS outbreaks to prevent importation of the disease.