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Swine flu: Time to close the U.S.-Mexico border?

April 28, 2009 |  8:10 am


The World Health Organization just raised the pandemic threat level to 4 out of 6 for an outbreak of what it calls the A/H1N1 virus.

In the United States, the number of swine flu cases is rising. In Mexico, where residents pictured above leave the subway with masks on, the death toll is climbing. In Europe, a health official is warning residents not to travel to either the United States or Mexico. And all over the world, stocks are tumbling as traders worry about the potential economic impact of panic on travel and commerce.

In Washington too, there has been a flurry of activity to address the outbreak.

At the White House, President Obama has added a daily swine flu update to his morning briefing schedule.

In the Senate, lawmakers finally started debating the nomination of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to head the critical Department of Health and Human Services. It's a nomination that, as The Ticket reported Monday, the Republicans have delayed. Even today, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is lobbying against Sebelius' confirmation because of the Kansas governor's support for abortion.

Finally in Congress, one lone congressman from Corning, N.Y., is calling for the White House to close the 2,000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico.

Democrat Eric Massa, a Naval Academy graduate and Persian Gulf War veteran who serves on the Homeland Security Committee and is also a cancer survivor who said he has "complete faith in our medical professionals," wants the border shut down.

The administration, which is working instead to rush antiviral medicines to the states, thinks closing the border is a bad idea.

For one thing, the spread of the disease has already started, making a border closure kind of like closing the barn door after the animals have escaped.

For another, closing the border is nearly impossible. If the United States could close its border with Mexico, illegal immigration might not have become the divisive and emotional issue that it has been.

Adding to the mix: The president is trying to calm people, not alarm them.

But mostly, as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano explained this morning, the economic and human costs of closing the border outweigh any conceivable benefits.

"We think that what we're doing now at the land ports and the airports makes sense," she said on NBC's "Today Show." Asked whether border closure is under review, she added: "That's something that can be considered, but you have to look at what the costs are. We literally have thousands of trucks and commerce that cross that border.... That would be a very, very heavy cost for what epidemiologists tell us would be marginal" benefit in containing the virus.

-- Johanna Neuman

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Photo: Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press