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Those immigrant children and their diseases

Yesterday, at a family gathering, one of my wife’s uncles immediately (within a minute of our arrival) started talking to her about the wave of immigrant children captured at the US-Mexico border and the “deadly diseases” they’re bringing with them. I’ve known this man for a few years now, and I continue to be impressed by the inability of his prefrontal cortex to overrule some of the stuff he says in polite company at a family gathering. (I won’t even go into his Facebook postings.) In essence, he parroted the talking points that so many anti-immigrant people and organizations are putting out there. The humorous moment came when I walked up next to them and my wife pointed at me and said, “Here’s one of those immigrant children, and he’s at Hopkins.”

That pretty much ended the discussion. Of course, the seed had been planted in my head to write about this today.

Another thing the uncle may not have realized — though how could he not realize it? — is that my wife is a physician assistant and I’m an epidemiologist. Did he really think that we would swallow the lie that all of those children are chock-full of disease? Did he not think that we would know better?

“Some people just want to watch the world burn,” someone once said.

Check out this report from UNICEF and the World Health Organization:

“Among 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, coverage during 2012 was >90% in 24 countries for DTP* and in 27 countries for MCV**.”


“Similarly, coverage with three doses of Hib*** vaccine, which had been introduced in 185 countries or territories by 2012, was 45% globally and ranged from <10% in Eastern Asia (where only Mongolia has included the vaccine in its national immunization schedule) to 94% in Latin America.”

And, from the same report, BCG vaccine coverage in Latin America was 96%, Polio 94%, Rotavirus 80%.

The other bit of epidemiological fact is that diseases will sprout whenever you put a big group of people together in cramped facilities. It doesn’t matter if they’re immigrants from developing countries or well-to-do people from “First World” countries. You see this all the time in prisons, crowded hospitals, schools, nurseries, etc. We need to be away from each other enough to not be incubators for things that like to feed on us. So why not be outraged that crowded prisons and underfunded hospitals are just as much — if not more — of a danger to the American way of life as those kids at the border?

Because it doesn’t fit the narrative that many in power want us to believe.

I read “When Germs Travel” by Howard Markel, MD, a few years ago. It’s a very interesting book about how waves of immigration have been met with resistance based on fears of communicable diseases. In the early 1900s, it was bubonic plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Jewish immigrants had to be screened for trachoma in the late 1800s. And there were outright riots when Mexican immigrant workers refused to be bathed in toxic chemicals to control a lice “problem”. The backstories to all of those incidents with immigrants are in the book. I highly recommend it.

As early as the 1990s, Haitian immigrants were held at Guantanamo Bay because they had HIV/AIDS, and for no other reason than that. If they didn’t have HIV/AIDS, they were allowed to escape their troubled country and settle in the United States. And these discriminatory, xenophobic practices continue now with the current waves of immigrant children (most from Central America) arriving to Texas. “They bring diseases we eradicated!” cry out the bigots who either know they’re lying or don’t know they were lied to when that talking point went out. (The only human disease that has been eradicated is smallpox, by the way. They’re confusing eradication with elimination, and, right now, Latin American countries don’t have measles outbreaks like we do.)

It’s easy, of course, to blame immigrants (or non-citizens who don’t have a vote nor a voice) for any and all of the ills of the country. We blame them for high unemployment by claiming that they took our jobs for less pay. (Because, you know, we all clamor for those fruit-picking jobs.) We blame them for violence in our cities. And, now, we blame them for diseases once thought “eradicated” from the country. Why?

Because it is human nature to want to stick together and keep “outsiders” out, and we can be quite vicious about how we do it. Every immigrant wave to this country has come with a lot of pain and even bloodshed. But those immigrants have integrated. They have learned English and been gainfully employed. Their children have grown up waving the American flag and serving in the US military. Their grandchildren have started up companies that employed a lot of people, much to the envy of the rest of the world. That this country has managed to move forward while being so diverse is what makes it exceptional, and there is nothing more American than that.

*DTP – Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis
**MCV – Meningococcal Conjugate Vaccine
***Hib – Haemophilus influenzae group B

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

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