Widespread hygiene problems at several US Customs and Border Protection facilities pose “a great many health risks” for the children housed in them, according to Dr. Howard Markel, a pediatrician and director of the University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine.
In May, nearly 133,000 migrants, including more than 11,000 unaccompanied children, were arrested for crossing the border illegally, according to Customs and Border Protection data. Overcrowding at some US border facilities resulting from this spike in detentions could lead to a “health crisis,” a team of doctors, lawyers and advocates warned last week. Describing conditions at the Ursula Processing Center in McAllen, Attorney Toby Gialluca said “virtually everyone we saw was ill,” while Clara Long, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the unaccompanied minors being held at a Border Patrol station in Clint “had colds and were sick” and also “didn’t have access to soap to wash their hands.”
The dangers are real, said Markel, who explained that “crowding diseases” easily spread when too many people share beds or too small a living space.
Lice can spread typhus
Children who do not wash regularly are likely to pick up body lice and “some of those lice could carry typhus,” said Markel. Fever, headaches and sometimes rash are common symptoms of epidemic typhus fever, which has the potential to spread rapidly among people living in close quarters, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“That could very well happen,” said Markel, who has not visited the facilities.
Untreated, typhus fever can become life-threatening, though antibiotics provide a common cure.
Other possible risks include common colds and even influenza, said Markel, adding that while it is not the season, flu is a possibility at any time of year. As any parent knows, young children do not always practice good “respiratory hygiene,” said Markel; They often fail to cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing and do not always wipe their noses. So respiratory illnesses can “very easily spread” in overcrowded situations.
Crowding is associated with increased risks of tuberculosis, according to the World Health Organization.
Diarrheal diseases, including contagious rotavirus causing watery diarrhea, vomiting, fever and abdominal pain (mostly among infants and young children), are another risk when children are too tightly housed.
Cholera, another diarrheal illness spread by feces contaminated water or food, is “unlikely,” still a crowded facility is “a good way to spread it,” said Markel.
Germs could travel from migrants to US community
He recalled a cholera epidemic of the 19th century that many believe transferred from immigrants to “some of the people watching over them.” If those within the immigrant facilities develop cholera, “it could very easily get into the community at large,” said Markel, who added that it benefits us all to not have places where disease festers because germs don’t respect borders or social differences: “Germs travel.”
Add to that, the general level of vaccination among the children is unknown, and “given the poverty of some of these children,” many may not have received all or some of their shots, said Markel. Key childhood inoculations that protect against highly contagious and life-threatening illnesses include the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella), the DTaP vaccine (diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough) and the polio vaccine.
“The greater the crowding the riskier the situation on every level,” said Markel, who added mental trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder, to the list of possible afflictions found within the facilities.
“The trek could not have been easy,” he said. Along the way, some of the kids might have been abused or temporarily or permanently separated from their parents. “The reunification of these split families has not gone as smoothly as we would have hoped,” said Markel. Meanwhile, possible turf skirmishes or mob mentality happening right now may be scarring some of the children as we speak, he said.
Markel said much of what’s happening now is reminiscent of the 19th Century, when a swelling number of immigrants aroused concerns about the potential spread of infectious diseases. In 1891, the federal government took control of the nation’s borders and initiated medical inspections (and in some cases mandatory exclusion of those diagnosed with infectious diseases) for immigrants by the United States Public Health Service.
All told, possible mental and physical health risks are rife within the Texas border protection facilities Markel said. “We knew this at Ellis Island, we don’t need to relearn this,” he said. “But apparently we do.”
CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez, Nick Valencia and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.