A Japanese manufacturer of thermographs is being flooded with inquiries from trading houses and overseas companies for an infrared camera system that has been installed at major airports because of the SARS scare this year.

At Narita and other international airports in Japan, thermographs are used to check the body surface temperature of passengers by recording infrared light radiating from their bodies in a bid to detect variations that can indicate a fever.

At the quarantine booths at Narita, for example, officials watch thermographic images of all passengers arriving from abroad.

If a passenger’s body surface temperature is 35.4 degrees or higher and his or her face on the thermography monitor appears red, that person must have their body temperature measured with a conventional thermometer.

Thermography was originally developed to check equipment temperatures and cannot correctly measure human body temperature.

“It is not a magic wand that can detect (SARS) patients instantly,” said an official of Nippon Avionics Co., a Tokyo-based thermograph maker.

In fact, Hitoshi Kikuchi, a quarantine inspector at Narita airport, admitted it is hard to accurately gauge temperature with thermography.

Body temperature is about 2 degrees higher than body surface temperature. But the difference between body temperature and body surface temperature varies from individual to individual, Kikuchi said.

“We are using thermography just to detect those having a high fever.”

Still, Nippon Avionics is receiving inquiries from Japanese trading houses and quarantine stations and even from China, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Nippon Avionics thermography devices come in two types — one priced at about 9 million yen and the other at about 3.68 million yen.

They originated from surveillance infrared cameras used during World War II.

Inquiries began coming to the company in late April, when Nippon Avionics started installing thermography devices at airports at the request of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The firm has received more than 100 e-mail and phone inquiries about the device.

“We want to use the device to check body temperatures of our employees when they come to work every morning,” said an official of a Japanese manufacturer operating in China.

However, Satoshi Takemoto, Nippon Avionics administration manager, is quick to note the device cannot tell between SARS and the flu.

The device is also unable to detect SARS during its incubation period.

Thermography is primarily used in industrial fields, including for detecting an abnormal rise in the temperature of power generating facilities and concrete leakage, as well as for thermal analysis of electronic devices.

With people, thermography can be used only to pick out someone suspected of having a fever from among a crowd, Takemoto said.

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