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TB traveler says he was tricked into quarantine

/ Source: The Associated Press

The globe-trotting tuberculosis patient who sparked an international public health incident in May said Friday he was tricked into a federal quarantine.

Andrew Speaker, a 31-year-old Atlanta attorney, he would have gladly gone into isolation if health officials had asked him to. Instead, he said they asked him to swing by a New York City hospital for testing after his European vacation, then posted armed guards outside his door.

“They tried to trick me when it was unnecessary,” Speaker said in a telephone interview from a Colorado hospital where he has been under treatment for a month.

Speaker, the first person quarantined by the U.S. government since 1963, disclosed new details about the discussions he had with health officials while in Europe, and about an aborted plan in which he would have driven to Denver for treatment after he returned.

He said he has no current plans to sue health officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other government agencies.

“I’m worried about people coming after me,” he said in a lengthy interview with The Associated Press.

International uproar

Speaker became the focus of a CDC investigation — and an international uproar — when proceeded in May with a long-planned wedding trip to Europe after health officials said they advised him not to fly.

CDC officials also said a May 22 test result indicated Speaker had extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, or XDR-TB, which is extremely difficult to treat. But Speaker’s doctors said this week that subsequent testing has shown only the less-dangerous multidrug-resistant TB.

Speaker said the XDR diagnosis escalated media coverage and made him internationally vilified. In a two-page statement posted Friday on his law firm blog, he said: “I can only hope that this news calms the fears of those people that were on the flights with me.”

He also noted that an early May CDC lab result — from a test which looks for evidence of drug resistance in TB bacteria genes — showed the less dangerous TB.

CDC officials said that test is experimental and had to be confirmed with more standard testing. They stand by the May 22 test, and said the public health response should be the same regardless.

The quarantine order was driven in part because Speaker flew to Europe after state and local health officials advised him not to travel in commercial aircraft, then he flew home from Italy after a CDC official repeated and emphasized the same message, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.

“He had shown a history,” Skinner said Friday. “He had left to go, and he had left to come back, against orders.”

Speaker argued that county health officials told him he was not a danger to his fiancee or others, and did not forbid him from traveling.

“They said, ’You don’t need to be sequestered.’ How can they turn around later and say, ’You should have been in isolation’?” Speaker said.

Asked to cancel trip

In Rome, Speaker said he got a message to call CDC official Dr. David Kim. It was then that Speaker said he first heard of the XDR diagnosis.

Kim asked them to cancel a planned train trip to Florence and said he would get back to the couple with news of travel arrangements back to the United States for treatment, Speaker said Friday.

But when Kim called again, he offered only two options: Go into isolation in Italy, or pay for a private air ambulance. Speaker said he couldn’t afford the air ambulance, and didn’t want to spend as long as two years in an Italian hospital.

Kim ended the conversation by suggesting, “Get some fresh air, get something to eat, because I know it’s been a stressful day,” Speaker recalled. Speaker and his wife then booked flights to travel through the Czech Republic to Montreal.

But Skinner said Kim would not have advised Speaker to mingle in crowds. “He advised cancellation of the train trip,” Skinner noted.

A CDC official reached Speaker after he crossed the U.S. border and asked him to go to a New York hospital for testing, to make sure his condition had not changed. In the hospital room, a health official walked in holding faxed copy of an isolation order, he said.

“It was the first time anyone ever mentioned an isolation order to me,” Speaker said.

After he was transferred to an Atlanta hospital, officials suggested Speaker drive cross-country with his wife to Denver for treatment. But that was canceled when Speaker’s health insurer agreed to pay for an air ambulance, Speaker said.

Skinner confirmed that account. “He would have been accompanied by public health personnel all along the way,” he said.