Infectious Disease Aviation Transportation

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture that was part of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Distinguished Speaker Series.  The speaker was Dent Thompson, who is the Vice-President and Chief Operations Officer at Phoenix Air Group Inc.  Not only is Phoenix Air heavily involved with US military training operations concerning aircraft/UAVs, but they also hold a contract with the Federal government to transport identified US citizens with infectious diseases from foreign countries and back to the United States for medical attention.

Phoenix Air’s involvement in this medical transportation was due to their involvement in the Sochi Olympics as part of a medical emergency transport plan, but more importantly, their creation of the Airborne Biological Containment System (ABCS).  They worked with the Department of Defense and Center for Disease Control (CDC)  to ensure that this containment unit worked properly and own the patent.


An undated photograph of an Aeromedical Biological Containment System (ABCS) from Inside the Flying Quarantine Ward Used to Transport Ebola Patients, Wired magazine.

Thompson provided some interesting facts about Ebola, which was first identified in 1976. 70-90% of cases are fatal that have no supportive care.  With African medical supportive care fatalities fall to 40%; however, if a patient can receive European or United States’ medical care, the fatality percentage falls to 8%.  What was most alarming in the lecture was the fact that until 2007 the CDC’s policies stated that if infected with something, the individual stayed where they were for treatment.  When you consider that these are third world countries with little medical technology,  medications, and properly trained staff, which is why the medical specialists are often there in the first place, it is a scary policy. However, until the development of the ABCS, there was no way to transport these patients back to the United States without exposing more people.

All of the individuals involved in the transportation – from pilots to medical to cleaning personnel – are employees of Phoenix Air.  The company completed over 41 trips for transportation for Ebola patients and never had any difficulty finding employees to volunteer for the trips.  There are extensive protocols that are followed for each patient; however, severity of cases vary.  In a few cases they have had to use two containment inside of each other  – “double bagged,” as Thompson called it.  They have had individuals who could walk off the plane, such as Dr. Kent Bradley (1st case of Ebola patient transported to United States), and some that had to be wheeled off on a stretcher, such as Nancy Whitebol (nurse who worked with Dr. Bradley).   After a trip is completed the entire aircraft is scrubbed and flooded with hydrogen peroxide.  What can be stripped from the plane is bagged and incinerated.

Thompson stated that often times he is asked why they are on contract with the Federal government when the last Ebola case involving such transportation back to the United States was eleven months ago.  He points to all of the other infectious diseases and stated that a week prior (on March 11), they were contacted to transport the first ever Lassa victim from Togo, Africa back to the United States.

The ABCS units work for all hemorrhagic fevers (Lassa, Marburg, Ebola), mosquito diseases (Dengue and Zika), plague, Swine flu, Avian flu, SARS, MERS, and XDR_TB.

Thompson stated because volunteers in these nations know about the aviation transportation (aka air ambulance) it “became a lifeboat for workers because they know they can get to a facility and can be treated; therefore, they stay to do their work and help others.”

For more information about one of the flights, I suggest the following article: Inside the Flying Quarantine Ward Used to Transport Ebola Patients. 




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