As the humanitarian crisis on our border grows, many Texans have expressed concern about the possible spread of disease from the flood of immigrant children entering the state. These children supposedly pose a threat to national security because of the presence of tropical diseases in their countries of origin.
Here’s the truth: Texans have nothing to fear from these children. In fact, the diseases that some politicians fear might be spread have long been in Texas or are already making new appearances. Last week, Harris County confirmed its first case of chikungunya, a viral disease spread by mosquitoes. The patient is not an immigrant child but a Texan who just returned from an international trip.
All of Texas, not just the border region, has long been home to numerous tropical infectious diseases, according to Dr. Peter Hotez, the founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The Aedes aegypti mosquito, a transmitter of dengue fever, yellow fever and other diseases, has been in Houston for at least a decade. Evidence of Chagas disease, which affects the heart and is spread by “kissing bugs,” has been found in a prehistoric mummy discovered in the Rio Grande Valley.
Texans are right to be worried about tropical diseases, but the focus of their concerns is misplaced. Texans had just as much reason to worry about the spread of disease before the arrival of these Central American children. Many of these “neglected tropical diseases,” or NTDs, do not have vaccines, and Texas researchers are racing to prevent these new threats not just in Texas but across the globe.
Hotez has recently identified Texas and Mesoamerica as one of 10 “global hotspots” for NTDs. He led the establishment of the National School of Tropical Medicine in Houston because it is the country’s NTD epicenter.
The Texas Department of State Health Services recognizes that some of the children crossing the border, like many American kids, do not have all their vaccinations and has been administering them through local providers and health departments. The state of Texas should be commended for ensuring the health of both immigrant children and the general public.
Immigrant children are not a threat to homeland security; NTDs are. Fortunately, we can do something about them. U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., recently introduced the End Neglected Tropical Diseases Act, which would provide for treatment, monitoring and evaluation, and the encouragement of public-private partnerships to address the seven most common NTDs. Texas lawmakers should take the lead on this issue by allocating additional resources to the detection of these diseases as well as funding to speed development of vaccines that will protect our communities from these new threats to public health.
Texans are compassionate and caring. We have no cause to fear the spread of tropical diseases because of the recent surge in immigration. The current crisis should instead serve as a palpable reminder that we cannot be complacent in our efforts to protect Texans and others from other, very real threats.