It would seem the fear of biological attack is for real... it's just not what we all thought it would be.
Are illegals making U.S. a leper colony?
'This is a real phenomenon. It's a public health threat. New York is endemic now, and nobody's noticed'
Posted: May 22, 2005
5:11 p.m. Eastern
Leprosy, the contagious skin disease evoking thoughts of biblical and medieval times, is now making its mark in the United States, and many believe the influx of illegal aliens is a main factor.
"Americans should be told that diseases long eradicated in this country – tuberculosis, leprosy, polio, for example – and other extremely contagious diseases have been linked directly to illegals," Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., told the Business Journal of Phoenix. "For example, in 40 years, only 900 persons were afflicted by leprosy in the U.S.; in the past three years, more than 7,000 cases have been presented."
"This emerging crisis exposes the upside-down thinking of federal immigration policy," he continued. "While legal immigrants must undergo health screening prior to entering the U.S., illegal immigrants far more likely to be carrying contagious diseases are crawling under that safeguard and going undetected until they infect extraordinary numbers of American residents."
The number of cases of leprosy, now known as Hansen's disease, among immigrants to the U.S. has more than doubled since 2000, according to a news report from Columbia University.
While the overall figure is small compared to other countries, some researchers fear the trend could lead to the disease spreading to the U.S.-born population.
"It's creeping into the U.S.," Dr. William Levis, head of the New York Hansen's Disease Clinic, told Columbia News Service. "This is a real phenomenon. It's a public health threat. New York is endemic now, and nobody's noticed."
Levis thinks America could be on the verge of an epidemic.
"We just don't know when these epidemics are going to occur," he said. "But we're on the cusp of it here, because we're starting to see endemic cases that we didn't see 25 years ago."
According to Steve Pfeifer, head of statistics and epidemiology at the National Hansen's Disease Program, only about two dozen new cases are found each year in U.S.-born patients, with that number remaining stable for decades.
But Pfeifer suggests many aliens are coming to the U.S. specifically to get treated for their skin condition, due to the short time between many immigrants' entry to the U.S. and their diagnosis with leprosy.
"They're coming to be treated because they get treatment free and probably get better treatment here," he told Columbia. "Somebody down there diagnoses them and says, 'Hey, you've got leprosy, and your best course of action is probably high-tailing to the U.S.'"
The fear is that since the disease remains contagious until treatment is commenced, a surge of diagnosed-but-untreated patients could mean a spread of leprosy into the population of those born in America.
Pfeifer said he had not issued an official report on the dangerous trend, fearing that anti-immigration groups would become vocal against centers providing free health care for illegals.
"A lot of our cases are imported," said Dr. Terry Williams, who treats leprosy victims in Houston. "We see patients from everywhere – Africa, the Philippines, China, South America."
Williams confirms that some of his patients came to the U.S. specifically for treatment, telling Columbia, "Certainly we do see some of that. We've had even a couple of patients from Cuba who were put on a boat by Castro just to get them out of the country – they made their way here through Mexico and Central America basically just to get treated. ... We treat them; our job isn't to be immigration police."
But not all experts have such a gloomy outlook.
Dr. Denis Daumerie, head of the World Health Organization's leprosy-elimination program, thinks claims of immigrants causing a spike in U.S. leprosy are overstated.
"There is no risk of an epidemic of leprosy," he told Columbia. "There's absolutely no risk that the few immigrants who are affected by the disease, if they are diagnosed and treated, will spread the disease in the U.S."