Disease-carrying travelers still a threat

Published 14 November 2008

It is now eighteen months since the Andrew Speaker saga: Despite having drug-resistant tuberculosis, and although his name appeared on no-fly lists, Speaker managed to fly to Greece for his wedding, travel to Italy, and come back to the United States; GAO says some improvements have been made, but problems remain

You may recall the saga, eighteen months ago, of the U.S. authorities repeatedly failing to stop the international travel of an Atlanta man with drug-resistant tuberculosis. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Craig Schenider writes that a just-released federal report says the problems still exist that could allow an infected person to slip through security.

Atlanta attorney Andrew Speaker ignited an international health scare when he evaded no-fly lists and border control checkpoints aimed at stopping him. The May 2007 incident raised questions about why officials had not stopped Speaker from traveling to Greece for his wedding, and why they did not stop him from fleeing Italy back to the United States.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), in a strongly worded 59-page report, faults DHS and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Schneider writes that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution received an advance copy of the report, which points to inadequate lines of communication among federal agencies that enforce public health laws, as well as flawed practices and delays in action.

The report credits the federal agencies with improving their policies and procedures since the Speaker incident, but it criticized them for not passing on enough information to state and local health officials regarding these new tools. Such education is especially important since state and local officials are usually the first to become aware of TB cases, the report said. “Unless state and local health officials are informed and educated about the new tools and procedures, delays in accessing federal assistance, like those encountered … could persist,” the report said.

In addition, the agencies should explore implementing more thorough background checks and better public health alerts at the U.S. border, the report said. The lack of that, the report said, “may result in missed opportunities to locate persons subject to public health alerts.”

The agencies reviewed the findings, and their responses were included in the report. Many improvements were noted. For instance, the names of people identified as public health threats are placed on a new “Do Not Board” list sent to airlines. Border officials also have revised their public-alerts system to prevent officers from overriding them. “There’s no doubt there are many lessons to be learned from that incident,” CDC spokesman Tom Skinner told AJC. “We’re more prepared today.”