Recently the USA’s first incident of MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) appeared in Northwest Indiana. The person involved arrived from Saudi Arabia, where cases of MERS have grown rapidly.
But this is far from the first incident of international travel exposing Americans to disease. It has happened several times in the recent past with more common, contagious diseases that have become intrinsically rare in the United States but are more common overseas.
Travel abroad is an integral part of American life – it includes business travelers, vacationers, students from abroad and internationally deployed military troops.
One of the best known cases was Andrew Speaker, an Atlanta lawyer who in 2007 returned with drug-resistant TB upon returning from flight to Greece.
In 2013, a US Airways flight was delayed because a U.S. citizen, who was traveling internationally, was identified as a possible TB risk.
A mumps outbreak in 2009-10 was traced to a single person who had traveled to England and spread the disease through a summer camp in New York.
U.S. troops deployed in Pakistan to respond to that country’s 2005 earthquake had to treat local residents for tetanus to avoid becoming infected themselves.
While such incidents are rare, each puts fellow travelers and members of the community at risk.
A single student’s case of drug-resistant TB prompted testing for nearly 150 classmates in the Fort Wayne area. The mumps outbreak mentioned above ultimately affected more than 1,500 people.
Fortunately, this is a problem with several solutions. Our own troops benefits from the military’s medical programs, described in detail at www.cid.oxfordjournals.org/content/44/3/424/full. Civilian travelers can visit www.cdc.gov/travel for travel information involving health risks of all kinds.
Government, too, can act to reduce the risk of diseases. Congress has wisely refrained from cutting support for global health programs. Among these are the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, which addresses three of the most common, contagious diseases on the developing world. Not only has this saved millions of lives over the last 10 years, it has also contributed to a decrease in TB cases (and thus the TB risk to international travelers) by 45 percent between 1990 and 2012.
These solutions will not eliminate all risk for international travelers. But they do minimize this risk.
When incidents such as the recent MERS exposure and Andrew Speaker’s multi-drug resistant tuberculosis case do occur, they remind us that even in an age of austerity, global health – thus, global disease control – is not just an international feel-good issue. It is essential for the security of our own globally connected country.