Sat, Jun 02, 2007 - Page 7 News List

TB patient asks forgiveness after desperate flight


A tuberculosis patient who turned fugitive in order to continue with wedding and honeymoon plans despite warnings not to travel has apologized to the fellow airline passengers he may have endangered, ABC television reported on Friday.

Andrew Speaker, a 31-year-old Atlanta lawyer, says he has tape recordings to prove his assertions that he was only advised not to travel, not clearly forbidden to do so.

Speaker touched off an international health alert, a rare federal isolation order and a congressional investigation when he and his new bride fled across Europe, sneaked onto a flight to Canada and then drove across the border to the US to avoid health officials.

Speaker is now being held in near-isolation at a specialist hospital in Denver for treatment for his infection, known as extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Health experts are tracking down 100 or so people who spent eight hours or longer close to Speaker on two trans-Atlantic flights to encourage them to be tested for possible TB exposure.

Officials at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say a federal isolation order -- the first issued in 44 years -- will likely be transferred to local Colorado authorities.

The US Homeland Security Department said it was investigating how Speaker slipped through borders despite orders to detain him.

ABC said Speaker defended his actions and apologizes for them in an interview to be aired later yesterday.

"He says he wants everyone to know how he made the decision, why he felt so strongly that it was not endangering anybody else and [is] also asking forgiveness of those onboard who are now having to be tested," interviewer Diane Sawyer said.

CDC officials and an infectious disease expert at National Jewish Medical Center, where Speaker is being treated, said he was not especially infectious. The mycobacterium tuberculosis bacilli were difficult to find in his sputum, he is not coughing and he appears to be in good health.

In an ironic twist, a veteran TB researcher at the CDC, Robert Cooksey, confirmed that he is Speaker's new father-in-law. Cooksey denied being the source of the TB that infected Speaker and Speaker's doctor said it is not known where the personal injury lawyer, an avid traveler, became infected.

Speaker was allowed back into the US by a border inspector who disregarded a computer warning to stop him and don protective gear, officials said on Thursday.

The inspector has been removed from border duty.

The unidentified inspector explained that he was no doctor but that the infected man seemed perfectly healthy and that he thought the warning was merely "discretionary," officials briefed on the case said. They spoke on condition of anonymity on Thursday because the matter is still under investigation.

The inspector ran Speaker's passport through a computer, and a warning -- including instructions to hold the traveler, don a protective mask in dealing with him, and telephone health authorities -- popped up, officials said. About a minute later, Speaker was instead cleared to continue on his journey, according to officials familiar with the records.

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