Despite Flu, U.S., Mexico Border Stays Open

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Obama administration officials will be taking questions on the swine flu during a webcast Thursday. On Capitol Hill Wednesday, health officials had to explain why closing U.S. borders won't keep out swine flu.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Mexico has by far the greatest number of swine flu cases, and some members of Congress want to know why the United States has not closed the border with Mexico. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee repeatedly asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano why the U.S. hasn't closed the border with Mexico to keep the flu outbreak from spreading. It was a question Connecticut independent Joseph Lieberman, the committee's chair, said he'd been getting too.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): I think what you're hearing today from members of the committee is what we're not only thinking but hearing from our constituents, and I think those calls will grow louder.

NAYLOR: Napolitano said the answer was simple. The virus is already here, she said, and public health officials are focused on containing it in the U.S. Aside from causing massive economic disruption, closing the border, she said, simply wouldn't do much.

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): Making such a closure right now has not been merited by the facts, would have very, very little marginal benefit in terms of containing the actual outbreak of virus within our own country.

NAYLOR: Napolitano said the U.S. was engaged in passive screening at the border, pulling aside people who look sick and putting them in special containment rooms where they're checked for the disease. Maine Republican Susan Collins wondered why the U.S. wasn't doing more, such as using the thermal imaging deployed at some Asian airports that can detect people with a fever.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): It seems to me that there are steps that could be taken to strengthen the screening at the border if closing the border is neither practical nor called for according to the public health assessment.

NAYLOR: But Napolitano said such thermal scanners weren't all that accurate.

Secretary NAPOLITANO: In addition, you have travelers who actually have the flu who don't have a temperature.

NAYLOR: There has also been debate over what to call this disease. In the U.S. this has mostly been in deference to the nation's pork producers, who are worried about pork prices. Public health officials are also concerned about Muslim and Jewish community where pork is not eaten, fearing people might not want to report an illness associated with a shunned animal. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health made sure an NPR reporter was using the correct terminology.

Dr. ANTHONY FAUCI (National Institutes of Health): It's the 2009 H1N1 flu. It's no longer going to be referred to as swine flu. It's the 2009 H1N1 flu.

NAYLOR: And officials repeatedly stressed the flu cannot be contracted by eating pork products.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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