- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2008

EXCLUSIVE:

Federal agencies’ failure to conduct adequate border inspections and share information allowed two men infected with highly contagious forms of tuberculosis to skirt security measures and travel throughout the U.S. and abroad last year, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) failed to share appropriate data, conduct adequate border inspections and employ quarantine measures for highly contagious diseases, according to a GAO report released Thursday titled Public Health and Border Security.

Andrew Speaker, a 31-year-old Atlanta lawyer who was infected with tuberculosis, slipped into the U.S. from Europe via a flight to Canada. His story set off alarms that the system had failed to identify the contagious passenger, which led to congressional hearings in June 2007.

The Washington Times disclosed in October 2007 documents revealing that a Mexican national also infected with the extremely contagious form of tuberculosis (TB) crossed the U.S. border 76 times and took multiple domestic flights throughout the year.

Various factors — a lack of comprehensive procedures for information sharing and coordination as well as border inspection shortfalls — hindered the federal response to the two TB incidents, the report said.

Absent procedures for coordinating with CDC, state and local health officials responding to the incident involving the U.S. citizen were uncertain how to request federal assistance, causing the initial delay in the federal response. Finally, CBP had deficiencies in its traveler inspection process, which led to further delays in locating the individuals and deterring their travel.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was warned by health officials on April 16 that the Mexican national, businessman of Amado Isidro Armendariz Amaya of Juarez, failed to acquire the appropriate treatment for his illness.

Despite the warning, Mr. Amaya again crossed the U.S.-Mexico border approximately 20 times between April and May 2007, the report stated.

GAO tells us what we have long known and urgently sought to improve and that is basic communications among federal government agencies is essential to protect Americans from potential terrorists, natural disasters, and outbreaks of disease,” said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut independent and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

“Our border security and aviation controls must be stronger if we are to prevent repeats of these types of border breaches,” Mr. Lieberman said.

The government investigation also revealed CDC had not developed procedures for informing state and local health officials about the process for coordinating with CDC to determine whether federal isolation and quarantine authorities should be used to deter the travel of an individual with TB.

Several sources in Homeland Security told The Times, on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, that CBP took more than six weeks to issue the first Be On the Look Out alert on May 31, after they were warned.

Mr. Amaya entered the U.S.May 21 to extend his I-94 travel visa.

Homeland Security waited an additional week after May 31 to tell its Transportation Security Agency, which then added Mr. Amaya to its “no-fly” list.

Despite having knowledge of Mr. Amaya, none of the agencies present at the investigative hearings in June on Mr. Speakers case revealed to Congress that another infected man was traveling in the U.S. and crossed the Southwest border numerous times.

Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) is a highly contagious illness that is resistant to the two most commonly used drugs to treat TB.

“Both DHS and HHS have since taken steps to improve their ability to identify and intercept TB patients who are determined to pose a public health risk, but I urge both departments to accept and adopt all of GAOs recommendations, Mr. Lieberman said.

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