Misinformation Spreads After Reports of Sick Passengers on Emirates Flight

After an Emirates Airline flight originating from Dubai landed in New York just after 9 a.m. on Sept. 5 with over 100 passengers complaining of illness symptoms, the spread of information was seemingly as swift as the reported illness. And as is typical during public health concerns, much of the information was later proven to be incorrect or misleading.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC), along with New York Port Authority, EMS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, met the flight on the tarmac at JFK Airport and evaluated the 549 passengers and crew members on board. Reports of the plane being quarantined by Eric Phillips, press secretary for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio were later refuted by Port Authority, according to the Huffington Post.

In a statement on the Emirates Airline twitter approximately an hour after the plane landed, the company confirmed that it was aware of the situation and that “about 10 passengers” on the flight were ill. However, the CDC released a statement to the media saying that 11 passengers from the flight were hospitalized.



And an article on NBC New York stated that 19 people were confirmed sick. It seems that nine passengers did show signs of an illness but refused to be taken to the hospital.

It’s not hard to see why such disparate information came out in the early hours after the plane landed in New York. Passengers, including rapper Vanilla Ice, shared updates on social media while they were sitting on the tarmac. Photos of ambulances and personnel outside the plane windows painted an ominous photo for followers of the story, and speculation about the origins of the sickness added to the fear.

Though the illness has not been officially confirmed, New York City acting health commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot said that the symptoms and patient histories indicate that it is likely influenza, and it could have spread quickly over the 14-hour flight from Dubai because “people who are infected can be contagious before showing signs of illness,” Reuters reported.

The discrepancy between the number of people who reported feeling sick and the number who were actually sick can allegedly be explained by the placebo effect. Barbot said that the majority of people who reported symptoms during the flight were cleared for sickness after being screened, according to the Reuters article. Barbot referred to these people as the “worried well,” people who witness sickness around them and are certain they have caught it too.

In a situation like this, it’s important to get accurate details out as soon as possible. Even when accurate information cannot be confirmed, it is best practice to report that your organization is aware of the situation and will keep the public informed as details emerge. Though the CDC’s statement did explain as much as possible, it came after posts from passengers had already circulated. Regular updates can help stem the flow of misinformation and quell public fears about the situation.

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