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Vectors or Victims? Docs Slam Rumors That Migrants Carry Disease

Doctors say they are concerned about false rumors and “hysteria” that children coming across the border from Mexico into Texas are carrying diseases.
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Doctors say they are concerned about false rumors and “hysteria” that the unaccompanied children coming across the border from Mexico into Texas are carrying diseases such as Ebola and dengue fever.

The rumors have been carried on anti-immigration websites but have made it onto some mainstream media sites and they’ve even caught the eye of a member of Congress.

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Residents of League City, Texas, even voted to ban undocumented immigrants from being housed within their city limits.

“Reports of illegal immigrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning,” Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey wrote in a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Many of the children who are coming across the border also lack basic vaccinations such as those to prevent chicken pox or measles. This makes Americans who are not vaccinated — and especially young children and the elderly — particularly susceptible.”

The CDC says it’s addressing Gingrey’s concerns. Other doctors have expressed surprise that Gingrey, himself a retired physician, would help spread the idea that kids could spread diseases such as Ebola that don’t even exist in the countries they are coming from.

“There is a long, sad and shameful tradition in the United States in using fear of disease, contagion and contamination to stigmatize immigrants and foreigners,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center and a frequent NBC contributor. “Sadly, this letter which rests firmly on innuendo and fear-mongering proudly continues this unethical tradition.”

“I think that’s a little bit of hysteria that’s not warranted at this point.”

Since October, more than 52,000 children traveling without an adult have been caught entering the United States through Mexico, which, in July, is already double the number of children seen in the previous year.

While some of the kids are indeed ill, they don’t have anything exotic or unexpected, said Dr. Mark Ward of Texas Children’s Hospital, who is president of the Texas Pediatric Society.

“As might be expected from children that had endured long journeys, they are tired,” Ward told NBC News. Some have common diarrheal and respiratory illnesses, he said.

The one disease there’s a higher risk of kids from Central America having is tuberculosis, Ward added. TB is not transmitted casually, and about 9,900 cases were reported in the U.S. last year, according to the CDC.

“I know that people tend to get focused on these sexy issues — is there some sort of dread plague that people are bringing into the country,” Ward said. “The reason for responding to these children is they are parentless. They are in a situation that is beyond their control. For humanitarian reasons, we need to ensure they get the care they need.”

Federal officials say the children are being evaluated and treated and vaccinated as needed.

“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,” said a spokesman for the HHS Administration for Children and Families.

“They are also screened for tuberculosis, and receive a mental health exam. If children are determined to have any communicable disease or have been exposed to a communicable disease, they are placed in a program or facility that has the capacity to quarantine. If they have mental health problems, they are similarly placed in a specialized facility to meet their needs and not in a temporary shelter.”

World Bank statistics indicate that some of the countries that the kids are traveling from actually have higher vaccination rates than the United States. The U.S. has a 92 percent vaccination rate for measles. Mexico vaccinates 99 percent of its children; Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras all have a 93 percent vaccination rate.

In fact, many of the children and adults are carrying their vaccination cards with them, says Dr. Martin Garza, a Texas pediatrician who is caring for immigrants in McAllen, Texas. “They are up to date in their countries,” Garza told NBC News. “This is not the poorest of the poor kids that we are seeing. In fact, they are what might be described as middle class. They have had medical care. They have been vaccinated.”

He said that while some of the kids are sick, it’s nothing unusual.

“The illnesses are pretty much what I see on a daily basis at my regular office,” Garza said. They have common colds and other respiratory infections that kids get every day, stomach pain and constipation or diarrhea. “Some of it might come from the fact that they haven’t had a really good meal for months and then we suddenly feed them one,” he said.

Garza said he has not seen a case of active tuberculosis. People can be infected latently, meaning they don't show symptoms, but they also will not spread TB if they are infected in that way.

"They have had medical care. They have been vaccinated.”

Garza said he has seen some overwrought news reports about scabies and head lice. “People have some real confused notions about what scabies or head lice are. Those things are more of a nuisance than actual problems,” Garza said, noting that head lice are so common and so harmless that the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that kids not even be kept out of school because of them.

A spokesman for Gingrey said there were worried that West African immigrants may be in the mix somehow, and that explains the worries about Ebola — which is only found in Africa. There is an ongoing outbreak in West Africa, but health experts note that Ebola makes people so ill they are very unlikely to travel far while infected.

Swine flu caused a pandemic in 2009, but the H1N1 virus is now part of the seasonal influenza mix that circulated widely in the United States this past flu season. There is very little influenza circulation in North America right now, according to the World Health Organization.

Dengue is found across central America, but it’s spread by mosquitoes, not by people. It’s also been found in south Texas in recent years. “Some of these countries may have dengue. I think that’s a little bit of hysteria that’s not warranted at this point,” Ward said.

Gingrey said he feared the children might carry diseases on buses or airplanes to other parts of the U.S. “As the unaccompanied children continue to be transported to shelters around the country on commercial airlines and other forms of transportation, I have serious concerns that the diseases carried by these children may begin to spread too rapidly to control,” he wrote.

Ward said the children deserved medical care. ”Decisions about caring for these children, I think, are independent of the politics of what is causing it. It’s happening. They are here. And regardless of what you think about what drove them to be here and whose fault that is, we need to take care of them.”