On 7 May 2009, the Japanese Government sent 25 infrared thermography systems to Mexico as part of an emergency assistance grant in response to the recent outbreak of a new strain of influenza.

As the world is now fully aware, that new strain of influenza was the H1N1 virus, otherwise known as swine flu, and it caused one of the biggest global scrambles to improve homeland security seen in recent years.

Fewer know, however, of the infrared thermography technologies implemented during this period, which are capable of analysing the intensity of infrared rays naturally emitted by objects and then visualising their temperature distribution. Such devices play an active role in a wide range of fields in the academic and scientific instrumentation market, including thermal loss inspection of industrial plan facilities, non-destructive testing of building structures and non-contact measurement of electronic equipment.

In the case of airports, infrared thermography systems, such as the NEC Avio TVS-500EK models that were delivered to Mexico, can be used to detect travellers with fever by displaying isothermal areas and producing a warning message if their body surface temperature exceeds a preset value (e.g. 37°C).

Yet debate reigns on the working practicalities of infrared thermography technology in combating swine flu at airports. A World Health Organisation (WHO) spokesperson said: “We do not believe entry and exit screenings would work to reduce the spread of this disease. However, country-level measures to respond to a public health risk are the decision of national authorities, under the International Health Regulations 2005.

“Swine flu caused one of the biggest global scrambles to improve homeland security seen in recent years.”

“Countries that adopt measures that significantly interfere with international traffic [e.g. delaying an airplane passenger for more than 24 hours, or refusing country entry or departure to a traveller] must provide the WHO with the public health reasoning and evidence for their actions. The WHO will follow up with all of its member countries on such matters.”

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Rising interest

This, however, has not stopped the success of Japanese company NEC Avio. As well as providing the 25 infrared thermography systems to Mexico the company has installed similar technology at airports in Japan and various parts of Asia.

The company has unsurprisingly witnessed a surge of interest in its technology throughout this year and has helped with installations at quarantine stations in airports and seaports, which have increasingly used the systems to screen travellers as part of countermeasures against H1N1.

NEC Avio’s senior general manager for overseas sales Masa Kurmaoto explains how the technology has evolved over recent years: “Our thermography systems were first developed in 1970 for medical applications. Through further research and development they were introduced to the industrial sector for non-destructive testing (NDT) and preventive and predictive maintenance (PPM).

“Since the SARS epidemic in 2003 our thermography systems have been used in many airports and recently, as a result of the swine flu epidemic, they have also been used at offices, factories, schools and public factories as well.”

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In June of this year, the company launched two new infrared thermography products – the TVS-200IS and TVS500-IS – both of which come equipped with body surface detection and alarm features. The cameras are capable of measuring a wide range of surface temperatures (from -10°C to 60°C) without making any direct contact with a subject and claim to maintain measurement accuracy to ±1°C.

When implemented at airport screening points, for instance, an individual with fever is detected when body surface temperature exceeds a set warning point. This then triggers an alarm message and a colour display of the individual. The image of the individual is displayed as a composite of their body surface temperatures, which enables a system operate to easily identify fever. The system can additionally be supplemented with optional alarms that initiate warnings such as buzzers or lamps.

“Airports are increasingly using thermographic systems to screen travellers as part of countermeasures against H1N1.”

“Thermography can instantaneously help airports find a person who has a fever and therefore prevent the spread of infection at the point of entry into a country,” Kurmaoto says. “In the case of an aircraft arriving from an area where influenza is rapidly spreading, thermography systems are often carried onto the aircraft and quarantine occurs onboard. Otherwise though, thermography systems are used at screening checkpoints before immigration.”

NEC Avio provides operational training for its thermography systems to customers, or more extensive seminars for staff that require a deeper knowledge of thermography, the system and its software. The company is also currently developing new technologies that will be able to make an automatic identification of an individual with fever – a step it feels will set itself apart from competitors.

“The airport sector has found thermography technology an effective and easy non-contact method of measuring human body surface temperature. Quarantine departments have acquired a lot of data for individuals from our systems, which they use with their own criteria of judgement,” Kurmaoto says

As NEC Avio sets about developing its next generation of thermography systems, so it seems the airport sector will continue to monitor the H1N1 situation and decide whether such technology has a place within their operation.