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Why blame TB traveler if he didn't break laws?

The laws of quarantine and public health are untested and unclear

Video: TB scare
Restrictions on TB patient may ease
June 4: Andrew Speaker, the TB patient who traveled to Europe for his wedding and is now being held under quarantine in Denver, has had two negative contagion tests. NBC's Lorie Hirose in Denver reports.

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Susan Filan
Senior legal analyst

So is Andrew Speaker public enemy No. 1 or just a poor guy with a bad disease who did whatever he could to get home before dying in an Italian hospital?

To answer this question, we need to know what Speaker knew and when he knew it.  By his account, he knew he had TB before he left for his wedding and honeymoon in Europe.   He says his doctors told him they “preferred” he did not travel, but they did not forbid him.  When pressed by Speaker’s father, who is a lawyer, as to the reason why Speaker shouldn’t go, they were assured that Speaker posed no danger and it was just to “cover themselves.”   Speaker’s father reportedly videotaped the meeting with the doctors. 

When Speaker got to Italy, he was informed by U.S. health officials that he had a deadly form of TB, highly resistant to drugs.   He knew that the only place he could be treated was in a hospital in Denver, Colorado, and that if he didn’t get back home, he could die.  Even though he was told to surrender to Italian authorities and enter an Italian hospital, Speaker tried to think of a way to get back home.   He was told that he would not be flown back to the U.S., not to take a commercial jet, and that a private jet cost upwards of 100,000.00.  So he did the only thing he thought he could do to insure his survival… He boarded a commercial jet to Canada and drove across the border back into the U.S. so he wouldn’t die in an Italian hospital. 

Luckily for Speaker, the border agent ignored the warning that popped up when his passport was entered into the computer and let Speaker cross into the U.S.  Speaker was supposed to be detained and isolated and turned over to authorities.  Instead, Speaker turned himself in once back in the U.S., believing that he would end up where he needed to be for treatment in Denver, Colo.

People are outraged by Speaker’s actions.  They call him selfish.   They blame him for causing an international health scare.  They feel he risked hundreds of lives just to insure his own survival.  They say he placed his life and well being over the lives and well being of everyone else.   They want to know whether he can be sued, or prosecuted.

I, on the other hand, wonder what Speaker did wrong?  And, I ask, what would you do if it were you?   Would you walk like a lamb to slaughter into an Italian hospital, knowing the treatment you need exists in only one hospital in the world, which is in the United States in Denver, Colorado?   Would you effectively commit suicide so as not to risk the greater good?  Are you that altruistic, selfless?

Secondly, was he really that sick, contagious, or a threat to others?  According to Speaker, he was told he was not contagious before he left, that he could have contact with his wife and family, and that he was not endangering anyone.  Once in Italy, when told of the type of TB he had, he believed he was told that he was no more contagious than when he left.  In his mind, “So what had changed?”   He wondered why his government and country was abandoning him and essentially stranding him, leaving him to die.  He took it upon himself to go home.  


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