Border politics: No disease outbreak found in Rio Grande Valley

AUSTIN -- Children by the trainload making the terrifying trip from Central America to cross illegally into the U.S. have sparked fears among some over what they may be bringing with them.

"These are people that are coming in with diseases, leprosy, tuberculosis, polio," one woman claimed at a Wednesday townhall meeting in Tyler hosted by state Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview).

"That's not the only problem, TB. We're having a problem with whooping cough, and scabies and HIV and Hepatitis A and B and C, some of these that are highly contagious problems," Tyler surgeon Margarita de la Garza-Grahm said during a July 16 media conference at the Texas Capitol attended by several Tea party organizations and activists.

"Don't be shocked if in two or three years we have an overwhelming problem with tuberculosis," Garza-Grahm warned.

So what do the numbers say?

A memo obtained by KVUE from the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee sent to state representatives reported just three cases of tuberculosis, up to three cases of H1N1 flu and minimal cases of chicken pox. The majority of ailments reported have been scabies, lice and rashes.

"The concern is that shelter situations can breed outbreaks of diseases typically seen in Texas, especially when detention periods exceed 72 hours," the report acknowledges. However, "There is currently no evidence to suggest that the above cases caused any secondary illness; there are currently no outbreaks evident in Texas."

Furthermore, the report states, "These children come from highly vaccinated countries. Measles, polio, and rubella have been declared eliminated in North, South and Central America for several years now."

"TB can spread from person to person and any single cases of tuberculosis needs to be taken very seriously," said University of Texas Associate Professor, whose research includes disease transmission and epidemiology. Meyers notes it's important to put the numbers in perspective.

Texas sees more than a thousand cases of tuberculosis each year, with a total of 1,222 cases reported in 2013. While those born in a foreign country make up the largest demographic among those who have contracted the disease, the total number of cases has been in steady decline for at least eight years.

The H1N1 virus was the dominant strain causing illness during the most recent flu season, with infected individuals numbering in the millions. More troubling for the medical and scientific community is the prospect of discovering drug-resistant strains of known diseases, and there has been no evidence any such strains have been identified in the Rio Grande Valley.

A spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explained the screening process in an e-mail to KVUE:

"When children arrive at U.S. border stations, they are given a medical screening and, if needed, medical treatment. When children come into the Department of Health and Human Services program, they are given a well-child exam and given all needed childhood vaccinations to protect against communicable diseases. They are also screened for tuberculosis and receive a mental health exam. Children from this region of the world participate in comprehensive childhood vaccination programs, similar to the United States, and are generally well protected from most vaccine-preventable diseases."

"If it is determined that children have certain communicable diseases or have been exposed to such communicable diseases, they are placed in a program or facility that has the capacity to quarantine. Children with serious health conditions are treated at local hospitals. The cost of this care is fully paid by the federal government."

The bottom line?

"Nobody wants there to be cases of flu or tuberculosis," said Meyers. "But the numbers of cases that we're seeing down near the border are not particularly alarming, particularly in the context of the number of cases of these diseases we see every year in Texas."

Go here to read the memo.


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