Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 2003 / 7 Kislev, 5764
Broken borders pose a serious health risk
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | We now know that the recent deadly outbreak of hepatitis A was caused by contaminated green onions imported from Mexico. It took the Federal Drug Administration far too long to make that determination and to link the Pennsylvania outbreak to earlier outbreaks in Tennessee and Georgia.
The United States is vulnerable to disease crossing our borders. Every day, destructive organisms that threaten our health and our food supply cross into our country undetected. Gaps in border controls and inadequate inspections leave this country vulnerable to devastating viruses, bacteria, pests and, in the potentially worst case, terrorism.
More than two years after 9/11, the FDA inspects only 2 percent of the produce and goods that cross our borders. Yet imported produce is more than three times as likely to contain harmful bacteria as domestic produce. These figures are especially alarming because we now import nearly 25 percent of the produce that we consume.
Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, says part of the problem with the food supply is that there is no agency responsible for looking at the big picture.
"The USDA does meat, and the FDA does fruit and vegetables," Nestle says. "If you look at the number of places that need to be inspected, the number of border crossings, the number of people who are crossing the border - it's just a huge problem. And the current method that we have for dealing with this is fragmented."
Most experts agree that simply ramping up inspections to appropriate levels here in the United States would be extremely difficult.
"Even if we increased (domestic inspections) tenfold, 20 percent would still be a giant leaky border," says Marjorie Hoy, a professor of entomology at the University of Florida.
A more viable solution would be to have more inspections overseas, particularly of food items.
Dangerous pests and illnesses that enter our country every year are also a threat to our crops. An estimated 50,000 non-native invasive species cost this country $137 billion a year, affecting our agriculture and our health. Non-indigenous species can be responsible for introducing new diseases, such as the West Nile virus.
"The West Nile virus is an example where pests came in, spread through mosquitoes, and (now) we're going to have to live with it," Hoy says. "It's a long-term cost to our society."
Although screening at the border for disease has been effective in detecting cases of SARS and mad cow disease, the illegal crossings of humans and animals still pose a legitimate threat. Just this year, animals smuggled from Africa infected American prairie dogs, which then affected humans with the disease monkey pox.
Hundreds of thousands illegal immigrants cross into the United States without health screening. Today, more than 7,000 people suffer from leprosy in the United States. Leprosy was once considered a rare disease in this country. Many of those infected are immigrants from countries with leprosy problems, such as Brazil.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control found that foreign-born people accounted for more than half of all cases of tuberculosis in the United States. In fact, the rate of TB for non-native people in the United States is eight times higher than for people born here.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., has introduced legislation to help protect our borders. Tancredo told me that the legislation would require "a significant increase in the number of border patrol authorized - actually 20,000 authorized. . It encourages the president to use the military on the border."
Unfortunately, Tancredo has not yet received the support for the legislation that he is hoping for.
Invasive species and disease from overseas present a largely overlooked risk to our nation's welfare, and we must vigorously attack the issue on all fronts. At the very least, we need better inspection standards for goods entering this country, as well as better controls on animals and people crossing our borders. Two years after 9/11 our borders are still wide open. That is simply unacceptable.
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