Infectious Disease Outbreaks a 'High Risk' for Border Immigrants

Tuesday, 24 Jun 2014 02:52 PM

By Lisa Degnen

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Health officials are warning of a possible medical crisis as an unprecedented wave of immigrants from Mexico and Central America make their way across the border from Mexico to Texas, including many unaccompanied minors.

At two detention centers near the border where the illegal immigrants are being held, officials with the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) reported that conditions "posed a high risk for infectious disease outbreaks," according to The Texas Tribune.

The report says that immigrants who are released by the U.S. Border Patrol "were not appropriately screened or treated for illness while in federal custody."

The system appears to be bursting at the seems since agents began noticing the unusual wave of immigrants crossing the border last October. The paper says 160,000 undocumented immigrants — 33,500 of whom are unaccompanied minors — have been detained by the Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley.

If and when they are caught, the immigrants are transferred to federal detention centers to be held temporarily, but that presents an entirely new problem as far as health and disease.

The Tribune says the health officials toured facilities in Brownsville and McAllen, Texas. They said there was a lack of medicine and no screenings or testing for diseases like tuberculosis.

"Our staff believe the children's living conditions pose a high potential for infectious disease outbreak among the children and staff," the paper quotes department spokeswoman Carrie Williams as saying. "The conditions are not healthy and not acceptable for children by Texas and national public health standards."

The Department of Homeland Security said Customs and Border Protection agents are meant to conduct screenings for several diseases just after a detainee is taken into custody. Once they are in a detention facility they are screened again.

"But state officials said the medical screenings are not sufficient because they're only being conducted on a verbal and visual basis. DSHS also raised hygiene concerns, reporting that children eat, sleep and use the bathroom in the same crowded cells, and have no running water or soap," the paper says.

DSHS has recommended that "mass shelter standards" be followed to avoid spreading conditions like scabies, head lice, and conjunctivitis according to the report.

Dr. Martin Garza is a volunteer in McAllen who offers immigrants medical assistance. He says he has treated hundreds of recent detainees for abdominal pain, skin abrasions and dehydration.

"They are just the things you'd expect from a 15-day trip through Central America," Garza told the Tribune. "We're doing as much as we can with over-the-counter medicine."

Another official reported seeing five cases of chicken pox and a potential tuberculosis case.
Garza told the paper that as immigrants await court dates they may travel to other places in the country like New York, Ohio or Florida, where they can spread contagious diseases.

"Today it's an Hidalgo County problem," he told the paper. "Tomorrow there's going to be a Houston problem."

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz on Monday called for the Obama administration to more strictly enforce immigration laws.

"It is unacceptable to have children housed in facilities like this," Abbott said, according to the Tribune. "Equally unacceptable, though, is to have a president promoting policies that entice children to navigate more than a thousand miles away from home, going through the most treacherous conditions, facing things like human trafficking and sexual assault."

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