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Tuberculosis Patient Raises Concerns About Health Risks

A man diagnosed with a drug-resistant form of tuberculosis completed several oversees flights despite health warnings, raising questions about security and health precautions. A medical professor discusses the dangers of the disease and the government's response.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Doctors at Denver's National Jewish Medical and Research Center today began treating the man who has captured international attention for traveling with a dangerous form of tuberculosis. The patient was identified today as 31-year-old Andrew Speaker, an attorney from Atlanta.

    The story also took on a surprising twist: It turns out his father-in-law is a CDC microbiologist specializing in the spread of TB and other bacteria. Meanwhile, health officials in North America and Europe worked to track down dozens of people who may have been exposed to Speaker while he traveled overseas for his wedding and honeymoon. So far there have been no confirmed reports that his illness spread to other passengers.

    Speaker flew from Atlanta to Paris on May 12th aboard Air France Flight 385. Then he flew on four shorter flights while in Europe: Paris to Athens on May 14th; Athens to Thira Island two days later; Mykonos Island to Athens; and Athens to Rome on May 21st.

    Before he left the U.S., Fulton County, Georgia, officials said they had told Speaker that he had tested positive for TB. Dr. Martin Cetron directs the Center for Disease Control's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine.

    DR. MARTIN CETRON, Centers for Disease Control: You know, there's a difference of opinion about whether anybody condoned his travel. I think it's very clear from the conversations we've had with the health department that they clearly told him not to travel.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    When he was in Rome last week, Speaker was notified by CDC authorities that further test results indicated he had the worst form of TB, called extensively drug-resistant, or XDR-TB. They told him to report to Italian health officials and not to fly on any commercial airlines.

  • DR. MARTIN CETRON:

    There were clear, several communications between my staff and the individual in Rome begging and asking him to stay put and not travel while we worked on some options.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Despite that warning, Speaker took a Czech Air flight on May 24th from Rome to Prague. Then he proceeded to Montreal and drove across the Canadian border to the U.S.

    After being contacted by CDC officials, he voluntarily went to Bellevue Hospital in New York, where he was held for 72 hours. The CDC then flew him to Atlanta and Grady Memorial Hospital on May 28th. Speaker is the first person to be quarantined by the federal government since 1963.

    This week, CDC Director Julie Gerberding said the risk is greatest for those exposed on long flights.

    JULIE GERBERDING, Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: We have no suspicion that this patient was highly infectious. In fact, the medical evidence would suggest that his potential for transmission would be on the low side, but we know it isn't zero.

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