Right-wing media are falsely blaming the recent surge of undocumented children from Central America for spreading a deadly strain of the enterovirus. Conservatives are claiming the children are a form of “biological warfare” and President Obama and the government are “bringing in infected children and putting them in our public schools” because he's “so obsessed with winning Latino votes.” However, the disease has been detected in the country for decades and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) told Media Matters that there is “no evidence” of a link.
Fearmongering about undocumented children spreading enterovirus D68 is the latest chapter in the conservative media's book of xenophobic smears. The right-wing media, in their efforts to oppose immigration reform, have previously blamed undocumented immigrants for diseases such as Hansen's disease (leprosy) and tuberculosis.
This year, a surge of unaccompanied children fled violence-stricken Central America and crossed the border into the United States. Many of the children were relocated to various cities and are starting school.
The CDC has confirmed over 600 cases of EV-D68 since mid-August. The agency notes that “Almost all the confirmed cases this year of EV-D68 infection have been among children. Many of the children had asthma or a history of wheezing.” While investigations are ongoing, the virus has been “detected in specimens from five patients who died and had samples submitted for testing.”
Public health experts have debunked the alleged connection between the influx of undocumented children into the United States and the spread of EV-D68. CDC spokesperson Jeanette St. Pierre told Media Matters: “Currently, there is no evidence from testing at CDC that EV-D68 infections in the U.S. are a result of unaccompanied minors moving into the country.”
MLive reported that conservatives “have implied a link between undocumented children from Central America and the spread of enterovirus, but public health experts say that's simply not the case.” The Michigan-based site, which publishes The Grand Rapids Press and others, wrote:
Enterovirus was first detected in the United States in 1962, according to the CDC. The specific EV-D68 strain was first detected in 1987, said Eden Wells, Clinical Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
“I think that this really sort of argues against the fact that this is a new virus introduced by anybody,” Wells said.
Dr. Matthew Davis, the state's Chief Medical Executive with the Michigan Department of Community Health, said that “While it's theoretically possible that someone from any part of the world can bring an infection to another part of the world, it seems unlikely that children from Central America have brought this particular enterovirus strain into the United States.”
In its page about unaccompanied children, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services wrote that the CDC “believes that the children arriving at U.S. borders pose little risk of spreading infectious diseases to the general public.” It adds:
As a precaution, ORR [HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement] is providing vaccinations to all children who do not have documentation of previous valid doses of vaccine.
Children receive an initial screening for visible and obvious health issues (for example, lice, rashes, diarrhea, and cough) when they first arrive at CBP facilities. Onsite medical staff are available at CBP facilities to provide support, and referrals are made to a local emergency room for additional care, if needed. Children must be considered “fit to travel” before they are moved from the border patrol station to an ORR shelter.
Children receive additional, more thorough medical screening and vaccinations at ORR shelter facilities. If children are found to have certain communicable diseases, they are separated from other children and treated as needed.
Conservative figures such as Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, and Allen West have been pushing the dubious link between undocumented children and EV-D68.
Rush Limbaugh. During his September 8 program, Limbaugh connected undocumented immigration to enterovirus. After noting the spread of the virus, Limbaugh said the “companion story is Obama will not tell anybody where all of the children that have crossed the border in the last four months have been relocated to ... Now, are the two stories related or are they not? Does this sweeping mysterious virus that's multiplying across the Midwest, does it have anything to do with that or not? We don't know. That's the answer. We just don't know. But some people think there may be some kind of a connection.” Limbaugh's website -- which is screenshotted at the top of this post -- also drew a connection between the children and enterovirus.
Michael Savage. On his September 8 radio program, which was touted by WND, Savage said he's been “trying to warn America about the unscreened immigrants being brought in” and then blamed undocumented immigrants for purportedly spreading EV-D68. He added that the government is “encouraging it by not speaking out against bringing in infected children and putting them in our public schools.”
Investor's Business Daily. The conservative financial newspaper published a September 26 editorial discussing enterovirus and claimed that “It's plain what's bringing up this great wave of diseases: immigration politics. President Obama is so obsessed with winning Latino votes for Democrats by neglecting border laws that he's unwittingly opened the U.S. up to a variety of third-world diseases.”
Pat Robertson. As Right Wing Watch's Brian Tashman noted, on October 3, Pat Robertson discussed enterovirus and wondered if undocumented children carried “with them viruses that we were not familiar with in the United States and haven't built up immunity to?”
Jesse Lee Peterson. Peterson, host of The Jesse Lee Peterson Radio Show, claimed on October 4 that “all of these diseases that we're starting to hear about now, that the illegal aliens are bringing them in -- we had all these illegal children come in. Obama secretly implanted them, embedded them in communities around the country, no one knows where they are ... and now these strange and weird diseases are [starting to kill] folks.”
Peterson's guest Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian pushed back on Peterson's claims, stating it's “not the fault” of undocumented children and that “when we were having the kids coming across from Central America a couple months ago when that was in the news, those kids were being vaccinated, they were being evaluated by doctors.”
Allen West. During an October 7 podcast interview on BlogTalkRadio's African-American Conservatives, West said President Obama is “acting unlawfully, unconstitutionally when it comes to the issue of illegal immigration.” West then said he's concerned there's “a correlation” between enterovirus and “the fact that we have allowed illegal kids to come in and go to our schools with no medical screening or clearance whatsoever.”
On the October 7 edition of The Jesse Lee Peterson Radio Show, West agreed that the undocumented children are a form of “biological warfare” against the country, explaining: “Biological warfare, you know, it doesn't have to be something purposeful. But when all of a sudden you have contagions that are in your environment that are attacking your people, that is an aspect of biological warfare.”