Federal officials pressured to tighten border crossings under outbreak
By Jim Landers
The Dallas Morning News, April 30, 2009
Washington, DC — Pressure mounted on federal officials Wednesday to tighten health screening or even close border crossings with Mexico to stem the spread of a new strain of influenza.
Teacher's aide Arminda Salinas helps children at the Texas Migrant Head Start Program wash their hands in Rio Grande City, Texas.
Top officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there was no medical merit to closing the border, since the disease has already spread across the country.
Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound, who is a physician, said the federal government should close the border 'to the extent that you can.'
'Our surveillance needs to be a lot tighter than I hear it is right now,' Burgess said. 'I'm very concerned with the way this is developing. I'd much rather be criticized for doing too much than not enough.'
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said closing the border should remain an option 'if it would prevent further transmission of this deadly virus.'
The 2009 H1N1 influenza virus a name adopted Wednesday by federal officials trying to avoid tarring the pork industry mixes genetic material from humans, swine and birds. Because it has never been seen before, virus hunters fear that there is no immunity to the disease and that it may easily spread around the world.
The CDC has issued a travel warning to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico. Some countries where the new influenza virus has not yet appeared, such as Cuba, are halting flights with Mexico, and several Asian countries are using thermal screening devices to identify travelers who might have a fever.
Members of Congress are pressing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to strengthen border medical checks. Napolitano said she would keep checking with medical experts, but that closing the border would cause 'huge economic disruptions' without any medical benefits.
'To date, what we are told is that any kind of universal closing of a port would have no impact or very, very little impact on the spread of this virus,' Napolitano said. 'Any kind of containment theory, that you are going to keep it out of the United States, is really moot.'
Texas is particularly integrated with the Mexican economy, with paired farms and factories, extensive transportation and energy networks, retail traffic and travel. Mexico is the state's leading sales market, and bought $62 billion of goods produced in Texas last year.
But in a national health emergency, and when the Mexican government itself is limiting public gatherings to try to curb the spread of the disease, many lawmakers and their constituents are pressing for stronger border measures.
Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison questioned CDC officials Tuesday about using thermal screening and other measures during a congressional hearing. She was told such devices would not help in detecting a disease that doesn't immediately cause fevers.
'I remain concerned about the risk posed by those infected possibly entering our nation through Texas' many ports of entry and airports,' Hutchison said.
Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC, said the initial planning for dealing with a new influenza virus involved isolating the spot where it breaks out, and 'at the same time implement some border controls to delay, maybe by a couple of weeks, introduction of the virus into our own borders.'
But the 2009 H1N1 strain was first identified in a patient in San Diego, he said. Once the CDC informed the world of a new flu virus, Canadian virus hunters announced that the disease strain spreading across Mexico was the same virus identified in San Diego.
'Trying to close entry and exit points would use up major resources that could be applied with things that do work,' Besser said.