carlzimmer · @carlzimmer

21st Jul 2014 from TwitLonger

Diseases don't check passports

Today was one of those days when I was reminded just how ambiguous a tweet can be. So I’m taking to Twitlonger to explain the thinking behind something I wrote on Twitter this morning.

I was reading a piece by Jamelle Bouie called <a href="">"America's Long History of Immigrant Scaremongering."</a> Bouie started with recent claims that immigrants are bringing all sorts of deadly diseases into the United States. And then he moved back over the past couple centuries, looking at some of the many cases in which Americans saw immigrants--such as Jews and Chinese people--as dangerous vectors for devastating infections.

As I read the piece, it struck a nerve. In my own work writing about diseases, I have encountered this "diseased immigrant" rhetoric a few times myself, and I have always been puzzled by it. When I wrote about tapeworm infections in the brain for Discover, the actor Chuck Norris picked it up for one of his columns. The comments included <a href="">lines</a> like, "The USA will see a huge increase in this parasitic infection with the democrat party importing all the illegal votes they can get."

I was asked a couple years ago to go on the radio to talk about the bed bug outbreaks in New York, and a number of callers explained to me with great confidence that the reason for the outbreak all came down to illegal immigrants who had brought bed bugs into the United States.

When you look at the <a href="">research</a> of scientists, however, you don't see anything like that. The resurgence of bed bugs appears to be the result of a kind of perfect storm of factors in modern life, from the evolution of insecticide resistance to trade in second-hand furniture to cheap airplane tickets. What scientists do not do is single out people coming across the Mexican border. The resurgence of bed bugs is a global phenomenon, with the insects on the rise in many developed countries around the world. It requires a global explanation.

Illegal immigrants not only get wrongly singled out for real outbreaks. They also get singled out for fake ones. <a href="">Back in 2005</a>, Lou Dobbs somberly warned that illegal immigration was driving a leprosy outbreak, with 7000 cases in the previous three years. Turned out, those statistics covered the past <i>thirty</i> years. And over the past nine years since Dobbs uttered his dark prophecy, we've seen a lot of continued immigration into the United States. In 2011, the most recent year of statistics for leprosy, the United States had <a href="">173 new cases</a>. So it looks like Dobbs was wrong.

None of this is to say that the United States shouldn't be vigilant about diseases. But that vigilance requires a lot of public health measures, from preventing outbreaks of measles due to low vaccination rates to monitoring the return of American citizens from other regions where there are outbreaks. Right now, for example, there's a fast-growing outbreak of chikungunya virus in the Caribbean--a virus that has yet to come to the United States. It's important to keep track of tourists coming home from vacations there.

What I don't hear in the diseased immigrant rhetoric is a call to shut out all American tourists from coming home, lest they bring in chikungunya. Instead, it treats a group of outsiders as terrifying vectors. It's a selective vision of the risks of disease. It's us versus them.

After reading the Slate piece, I tweeted a link to it. And as I reflected on it more, I thought about how the worst case of someone bringing a disease to the United States was not caused by illegal immigrants from Mexico, but--ironically enough--by the Europeans who colonized this country. They brought with them smallpox, influenza, and other diseases that the people of the New World had never seen in the 15,000 years that they had lived in the Western Hemisphere. The death rate was spectacular.

So I <a href="">tweeted</a>, "Funny how the people yelling about disease-carrying immigrants never mention the Europeans who brought epidemics to the New World..."

I got a lot of responses to that--a lot more than I get to my usual fare of neuroscience, evolution, and the like. And I could tell from the responses that people were reading into that tweet things that I was not saying, or drawing conclusions from it that weren't warranted. And when I looking back at the tweet, I can see how 140 characters can do a mediocre job of opening a window into someone's thoughts.

So, to follow up on that tweet: the deaths of millions of Native Americans due to imported diseases can't serve as a rationale to stop immigration from Central America into the United States. That would only make sense if the United States had been isolated from the rest of the world for the last 15,000 years, so that Americans were uniquely vulnerable to pathogens carried by people from other places, like Central America. Otherwise, it's an absurd argument.

If somehow all illegal immigration stopped tomorrow, we would not be automatically saved from diseases that have yet to reach the United States, like Ebola or chikungunya. Diseases don't inspect passports before infecting hosts. It's worth remembering that SARS came to Toronto from Hong Kong after a Canadian woman paid a visit to relatives there. Are we going to seal off all our borders, preventing not just people from coming in, but from going out as well?

Some people who responded to my tweet today may still disagree with me on these issues. But I hope at least they'll have a better sense of where I stand.

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