A box of mosquito repellent destined to help protect pregnant women from the Zika virus in Haiti was turned away Saturday at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport when a group of Minnesota medical volunteers tried to check it as baggage, a trip organizer said Sunday.
The eight Twin Citians were flying to Caphaitian, Haiti, via Miami, on American Airlines Saturday morning. Non-aerosol bottles of the DEET-based repellent were in a box that weighed about 30 pounds, said Dr. Leslee Jaeger, who delivered the bug spray — purchased with donated money — to its would-be couriers.
When the group tried to check the box, Jaeger said, a ticket agent said DEET was considered "a combustible" and they couldn't take any on the flight, either as carry-on or checked baggage. A couple who are medical professionals were allowed to take it to the airport police station, where Jaeger retrieved it Saturday night.
The American Airlines website says insect repellent is allowed on aircraft, but it is restricted to no more than 70 ounces per person and no more than 16 ounces in each container.
Jaeger said Sunday the group wasn't aware of the 70-ounce rule — nor, she said, was the agent. She said the hope was that the airline would take into account the eight people traveling, but there wasn't time to open the box and distribute the bottles among the eight, she said.
Airline spokeswoman Alexis Coello said in a prepared statement that "American Airlines understands the impact of the Zika virus on the dozens of countries that we fly to."
She said, however, that the rules are "mandated by U.S. law" and "because this passenger had packed the insect repellent in one box, it exceeded the required legal limit."
The repellent was for the group's personal use and to distribute to expectant mothers at MamaBaby Haiti birthing center to help protect them from the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus. The birthing center serves 50 to 60 mothers each month, Jaeger said.
"The purpose of this was to try as best we could to protect the pregnant moms in this birthing center by giving them DEET," Jaeger said. If DEET is available in Haiti, the impoverished women cannot afford it, she said.
"At this point, it's the only thing that has been shown to be effective, other than not getting pregnant," Jaeger said.
The Twin Citians on the weeklong trip were part of a team of 15 volunteers who perform general surgeries and assist at Caphaitian's hospital, which has family practice physicians but no surgeons.
The Zika virus has been found in Haiti; anecdotal evidence has linked the virus to severe birth defects, although a scientific link has not been determined.
Jaeger said she has been flying to Haiti for medical trips every year or two since 2006 and is familiar with what is and isn't allowed on airplanes. The only difficulty they've faced in the past is paying a customs tax on insect repellent upon arrival in Haiti.
She said the group that left Saturday "didn't have a chance to argue" with the ticket agent because of long lines and general chaos before the early-morning flight.
There is no backup plan for getting the bug spray to Haiti, Jaeger said. They are working to ship it to team members around the country who are headed to Haiti in the future.