updated 9/2/2005 11:15:08 AM ET 2005-09-02T15:15:08

Federal health officials need better access to airline passenger lists so they can quickly locate those who may have been exposed to infectious diseases during a flight, a major gap in the nation’s border defenses, says a new report.

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It can take days of painstaking work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track down people exposed to exotic diseases, like a case last year of a New Jersey man who returned from Sierra Leone with a fatal case of Lassa fever.

The CDC has been pushing for several years to improve access to airline manifests and other data, such as the Customs Bureau cards that international travelers fill out upon U.S. entry, that can show where passengers were headed and how to contact them. But questions about passenger privacy and how to make airline and government computer systems compatible, among other issues, have stalled the efforts.

Thursday, a report from the Institute of Medicine backed CDC’s requests for electronic access to airlines’ information. That lack is a significant gap in the nation’s quarantine system, designed to intercept disease threats at U.S. borders, says the report by IOM, an independent group chartered by Congress to advise the government on health matters.

While electronic access is being devised, CDC and airlines should use passenger locator cards as an interim solution. These cards would be distributed on flights from countries where a disease outbreak is occurring or when a passenger becomes ill on a flight. Passengers would record phone numbers or e-mail addresses where they can be located after landing and their seat numbers, on forms that can be quickly scanned into CDC’s computers.

“This is a very big issue,” said Dr. Martin Cetron, director of CDC’s quarantine division. “What we’re really asking for is 21st century information management.”

Airline reservation databases don’t record all the information needed to track someone down after a flight, and there are so many daily passengers that it’s difficult for airlines to keep even electronic records long enough for CDC to use them when a disease question arises, he said.

The Air Transport Association of America, which represents major airlines, hadn’t seen the report Thursday and a spokesman said the issue is under review.

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