Immigration Detention Facilities Can Be A Breeding Ground For Disease

Sep 23, 2019
Originally published on September 23, 2019 7:46 am
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Health care professionals in the United States have nearly eliminated the mumps. The risk of contracting that disease is small. It's preventable, after all, but it's different if you are in an immigrant detention center. More than 900 detained immigrants are currently infected. Houston Public Media's Elizabeth Trovall reports.

ELIZABETH TROVALL, BYLINE: The recent mumps outbreak began in Texas last October with just five cases in immigration detention centers. Within months, the disease was reported in dozens of facilities nationwide. Dr. Jody Rich, an epidemiologist at Brown University, has been following the outbreak.

JODY RICH: I think this is a ticking time bomb in the detention facilities.

TROVALL: Mumps outbreaks happen in the U.S. from time to time in schools and prisons. But federal officials say this is the first time it's happened in immigration detention centers. Detainee cases now account for about a third of all cases in the U.S. this year. Dr. Rich says the detention centers are ripe for the transmission of disease.

RICH: We're taking a largely unvaccinated population, concentrating them in a very high-risk setting where the people have active disease, and we're going to see more and more outbreaks.

TROVALL: Not only of mumps but also possibly measles. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has given more than 25,000 doses of the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine in affected facilities. But Dr. Rich says that may not be enough. He specializes in infectious diseases in detained populations. Last month alone, 64,000 migrants were taken into custody after crossing the southern border. Most of the migrants come from countries that didn't routinely offer the mumps and measles vaccine until the mid-'90s, decades after the U.S.

RICH: Clearly by putting them in these facilities at risk for the spread of disease, we are putting them at risk for harm. And you're going to get a lot more people with more serious disease.

TROVALL: Mumps causes fever and swelling in the jaw. It's generally not fatal, but there can be complications. One possible symptom in men is inflammation of the testicles, which can cause infertility and severe pain. About 80 immigrant detainees with mumps have exhibited the symptom. And there are worries mumps could spread to the general population. The outbreak has already infected 33 staff members at ICE facilities, and thousands of detainees have been quarantined in states like Louisiana, Texas and Colorado. But the outbreak is not just impacting health.

JODI GOODWIN: Because of those rolling quarantines, I was not able to see him for almost four months.

TROVALL: Immigration lawyer Jodi Goodwin says one of her clients was quarantined in a south Texas detention center. That delayed his case and prolonged his detention. She says he's not the only person that's happened to.

GOODWIN: All of the lawyers that practice any type of detained work down here along the border have been impacted by the mumps outbreak, you know, and also other diseases.

TROVALL: At another detention center in south Texas, a detainee from Honduras says doctors suspected he had mumps. ICE medical records show the man was transferred to solitary confinement because the center's medical wing was overcrowded. The man asked that we not use his name because he doesn't want to hurt his immigration case.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) I went to the doctor. I had sinuses or something, a sore throat. It's very cold in the prison.

TROVALL: While the use of quarantine is standard for outbreaks, solitary confinement is supposed to be used as a last resort, according to ICE guidelines. The man says his room was freezing and small, 5-by-5 feet. He couldn't see his wife when she came to visit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) I started to cry. I said, why do they have me here?

TROVALL: After more than a week, his mumps test came back negative, and he was removed from solitary confinement. But he says he's not the same person since the experience. He's more on guard now and afraid.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) I'm panicked, afraid.

TROVALL: Meanwhile, the number of mumps cases continues to climb. Texas health authorities confirmed 37 new cases in immigration facilities in the past three weeks. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Trovall in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.