Swine Flu Aside, Border Agents See Illness Often

Swine flu aside, border agents see illness often

By Arthur H. Rotstein
The Associated Press, May 1, 2009

Tucson, AZ (AP) — Border Patrol agents along the southwestern border with Mexico are on alert for illegal immigrants who may have swine flu, but being on the lookout for contagious diseases is really an everyday part of their jobs.

It's not unusual for agents who capture illegal immigrants to discover someone with a suspicious cough or illness, and migrants have been found with diseases such as tuberculosis.

But the swine flu outbreak first reported in Mexico did heighten awareness for agents in the field.

'First of all we take the situation with H1N1 (swine flu) very seriously. We share the view that people should be aware but not alarmed or in a state of panic,' said Doug Mosier, spokesman for the patrol's El Paso, Texas, sector. 'We have been the first line of defense between the ports of entry since 1924, so being exposed to various communicable diseases historically is something we've always been vulnerable to and been a part of.'

The Border Patrol follows a standard procedure where immigrants who have been arrested and who show obvious symptoms are given a breathing mask to keep others from continued direct exposure. Border Patrol vehicles used to transport illegal immigrants to processing centers are equipped with separate ventilation systems to protect agents, said Lloyd Easterling, a Border Patrol spokesman in Washington.

In addition, the centers have quarters to isolate those who are or may be ill as they wait to see a health professional, Easterling added.

The Border Patrol on Friday couldn't immediately provide any reports on how many illegal immigrants with communicable diseases they encounter or other specific diseases they've seen.

The flu outbreak has brought a reaction from some federal workers who regularly screen migrants. A labor union representing Customs and Border Protection officers who man border crossings asked this week that its officers be allowed to wear masks and other protective gear while checking travelers who might have been exposed to swine flu.

But the union for Border Patrol agents, who look for those who have crossed illegally, didn't follow suit. Agents already have such equipment available and use it at their discretion.

'Name the disease, and since we catch people from all over the globe, there is the risk of encountering someone with a communicable disease,' said T.J. Bonner, a Border Patrol agent and president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing agents.

'A number of those are not transmittable except at very close contact with people.'

Bonner is frequently a critic of the agency for which he works. But he said the patrol had done a fairly good job of advising its agents in the field of the health risks they face and provided what it calls 'personal protection equipment' surgical respiratory masks, disposable gloves, protective eye goggles and hand sanitizer.

Agents also have access to antiviral medications such as Tamiflu.

'This particular outbreak has caught them kind of flat-footed,' with the protective equipment more readily available along some border areas than others, Bonner said.

'I carry latex gloves wherever I go,' said Norm Doty, a spokesman for the patrol's Tucson sector, the busiest point along the southwest border for both illegal immigrant and drug trafficking. 'I also carry a surgical mask to protect me or to put on a subject.'

Doty said agents don't ordinarily head out on patrol wearing masks and gloves, 'but if there's any individual contact with a person, we go to latex gloves, and if they're coughing, we put a mask on them.'

Border Patrol agents aren't trained to diagnose, Doty said.

'But we're trained to be aware of signs or symptoms, to be alert for such as H1N1, tuberculosis or cholera. And that policy has been in place for long before this began.'