U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, says federal officials should do more to screen people entering the United States for symptoms that may indicate they have the H1N1 flu, also called the swine flu.
“I am not advocating for closing the borders,” she told Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano at a Wednesday hearing of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee. “I am advocating for a stepped-up medical presence at the borders. I am advocating for the use of technology, perhaps these scanners that six other countries are using.”
Several senators asked Napolitano if there are plans to close the border with Mexico or Canada or close specific crossing points as way to slow the spread of the flu.
While rejecting closing borders, Collins said there should be a stepped-up questioning of those crossing in to the U.S. as part of an effort to slow the spread of the flu. She suggested that merely questioning those exhibiting flulike symptoms is not enough.
Collins said the scanners, while imperfect, can detect travelers with high body temperatures, a symptom of illness. She suggested immigration officials could then further question the individual on where they had visited and whether they have other symptoms that are not apparent.
“Even if they [scanners] are not perfect, they are going to catch some of the cases,” she said.
Napolitano agreed her department will review taking additional steps, but cautioned that every step taken to increase scrutiny has other consequences. She said slowing transit at busy border crossing will cause lines to form and increase the opportunities for person-to-person contact which is how all viruses are transmitted.
“There are some things we can do with respect to visa issuance and the like that will diminish the possibility of somebody carrying the flu coming over and we are open to those ideas and suggestions,” Napolitano said. “Closing the border, the science and the epidemiologists say would have virtually no impact on the amount of diseases in our country.”
Collins said she is troubled by a 2007 study that showed an individual with a “highly contagious drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis” was able to cross the border into the United States 21 times without being detected, even though the person was identified by CDC as a public health risk.
“Here is an individual who has been identified by CDC and yet customs and border protection was still unable to stop him from crossing two dozen times,” she said. “If they can’t catch someone whose name they have, why should I have any confidence that when they are using what has been described as passive surveillance protocols … why would I have any confidence they can screen for this serious flu?”
Rear Adm. Anne Schuchat, the interim deputy director for the CDC’s Science and Public Health Program, told the panel most Americans do not realize that the common seasonal flu has a major impact every year, with an estimated 36,000 deaths in the country and the hospitalization of 20,000 children.
“We are dealing with a novel virus. We don’t know all of the characteristics of how it will behave,” she said. “What we think is that the general population does not have immunity to this virus. The seasonal flu, a good proportion of the population has some immunity because of the viruses that circulate every year.”
Dr. Schuchat said researchers still have much to learn about the H1N1 virus. She said older Americans may have some immunity to the virus because of the numbers and types of viruses they have been exposed to over their lifetimes.