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Silent Invasions and Deadly Consequences

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By John W. Whitehead
April 28, 2009

It was an eerie scene at Aztec Stadium in Mexico City, as teams America and Tecos played in a nearly empty stadium. Normally, the 100,000-seat facility, one of the largest in the world, would have been packed with soccer enthusiasts. But under orders from the Mexican government, it has been closed to the public because of the swine flu epidemic. Indeed, hoping to minimize the risk of exposure to swine flu, the Mexican Football Federation has given orders for numerous soccer games to be played in empty stadiums.

Swine flu's symptoms are similar to that of the seasonal flu: fever, coughing, muscle aches and extreme tiredness, as well as diarrhea. The flu can be passed to other people through coughing, sneezing or touching infected people or surfaces and then touching your mouth or nose.

So far, there have been 20 confirmed deaths in Mexico due to the swine flu virus, with as many as 150 deaths suspected and more than 1600 people ill. Here in the United States, which has declared a public health emergency, there have been 50 confirmed cases of swine flu in New York, Kansas, California, Texas and Ohio--at least, that's the number as I write this, but the count has been growing daily. Many of those in the U.S. who have contracted swine flu have recently traveled to Mexico or come into contact with someone who has recently traveled there. For example, one of the major outbreaks occurred at a New York City prep school, some of whose students traveled to Mexico over spring break. Several schools and other public facilities have already been closed.

The Obama administration, lacking a confirmed Secretary of Human Services, Surgeon General or Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is scrambling to deal with the crisis and head off a public relations snafu.  Indeed, as a recent Washington Post commentator observed, "the wall-to-wall coverage of the swine flu threatens to swamp efforts out of the White House to frame the president's accomplishments," especially as it coincides with his first 100 days in office. However: "The swine flu offers Obama and his senior team the chance to prove that even amid an economic recession, two foreign wars and a debate over whether to prosecute CIA officials involved in harsh interrogation practices, he (and they) can handle a worldwide heath crisis."

In responding to the growing health crisis, the CDC has issued a travel advisory urging Americans to avoid non-essential travel to Mexico. U.S. customs officials have also been authorized to conduct "passive screening" of travelers entering the U.S. by land and air from Mexico, "asking people about fever and illness, looking for people who are ill."

However, little has been said about the dangers posed by people crossing the borders illegally. Documented illegal immigration has more than tripled in the last 20 years. It has grown, by conservative counts, from 3.5 million in 1990 to 11 million in 2008. Yet unlike those who arrive in the U.S. through official channels, those who cross the borders illegally make it increasingly difficult to control who and, more critically, what enters the country.

Indeed, as the report "Immigration's Silent Invasion, Deadly Consequences" details, "The invasion of illegal aliens pouring over the borders of the United States is taking an ominous turn. They are not alone! Their bodies may carry Hepatitis A, B & C, tuberculosis, leprosy and Chagas Disease. Chagas is a nasty parasitic bug common in Latin America where 18 million people are infected and 50,000 deaths occur annually." What's more, as a result of the influx of illegal immigrants, measles is reportedly making a comeback.

As an American, I have always been inspired by the fact that my country welcomes those "huddled masses" who come here seeking refuge. And as long as government officials maintain our borders and ensure that those coming from other countries are screened in order to protect those who legally live here, the concept of welcoming immigrants is a noble one. Yet the stakes are too high for us not to be more prudent in guarding our borders and screening those who travel in and out of the country.

Some of the worst epidemics historically have resulted from global travel and trade. As Professor Steven Mintz of the University of Houston notes: "Throughout history, the movement of people has played a critical role in the transmission of infectious disease. As a result of migration, trade, and war, disease germs have traveled from one environment to others. As intercultural contact has increased--as growing numbers of people traveled longer distances to more diverse destinations--the transmission of infectious diseases has increased as well. No part of the globe has been immune from this process of disease transmission."

We live in an age where so much occurs on a global scale: commerce, travel, warfare, even disease. Unfortunately, the nation is far from prepared to deal with the challenges of this age. This ineptitude and lack of preparedness are underscored by the U.S. government's handling of the swine flu outbreak--and by government, I don't mean just the Obama administration but government at large, the bureaucracy that transcends any particular party. For example, a recent Nation article details how money was cut from the stimulus package for pandemic preparedness, despite warnings that "a pandemic hitting in the midst of an economic downturn could turn a recession into something far worse--with workers ordered to remain in their homes, workplaces shuttered to avoid the spread of disease, transportation systems grinding to a halt and demand for emergency services and public health interventions skyrocketing."

The bottom line is this: The prime duty of government is to protect its citizens. This means having responsible people in government who understand what it means to be pro-active rather than reactive, especially when it comes to matters of public safety and welfare.

For too long, the U.S. government has been reacting to crises as they occur, with little forethought or preparation. We saw it with the 9/11 attacks and again with Hurricane Katrina. Now, with the swine flu outbreak, we're getting a sense of how devastating a full-blown epidemic could be. Already, the impact is being felt economically. As the Wall Street Journal reported, "U.S. stock futures fell sharply Monday as the outbreak of deadly swine flu stoked fears that a possible recovery in the global economy could be derailed."

It's time for our government leaders to get their priorities straight. We can ill afford any more surprises--medically, economically, politically or socially.

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Nelson Propane

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