Nearly 900 immigrants in US detention centers had the mumps over the last 12 months, the CDC said Thursday, at a time when the government is detaining a record number of undocumented people.
A total of 898 cases were reported in adult immigrants in 57 detention facilities across 19 states from Sept. 1, 2018, to Aug. 22 this year, according to the agency. An additional 33 facility staffers were also infected.
These 900-plus cases are the first outbreaks identified in detention facilities by the CDC. As of May, an apparent all-time high of more than 52,000 people were being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In June, ICE said there had been more than 330 mumps cases in the detention centers since September. The CDC’s new tally for such cases is the highest reported to date and is based on four ICE-operated facilities, 19 county jails, and 34 privately operated facilities, according to an agency spokesperson.
Those numbers are “striking” and “noteworthy,” said Marc Stern, an affiliate assistant professor in public health at the University of Washington. Based on the CDC’s data, an ICE detainee had roughly at least a 4,000-fold greater risk of getting mumps than a nondetainee in the United States at large, Stern told BuzzFeed News.
“That’s an incredibly huge risk,” he said by email.
The first mumps cases were identified in Texas detention facilities in December by the Texas Department of State Health Services, the CDC said. Since then, the federal health agency has been working with state and local departments, ICE, and other federal agencies to control the outbreaks.
Once largely eliminated in the US, mumps has recently been on the uptick, driven in part by a surging anti-vaccination sentiment, with more than 150 outbreaks reported across the country since 2015. The airborne virus is not usually considered to be fatal, but it is highly contagious, especially in close-contact settings. The two-dose MMR vaccine prevents most, though not all, cases, and patients are supposed to avoid contact with others to keep the disease from spreading.
According to ICE policy, detainees receive a medical screening within 12 hours of arriving, ICE spokesperson Shawn Neudauer told BuzzFeed News by email. The mumps vaccine is not universally mandated, but it is offered to anyone who has been exposed, he said. Detainees who may have been exposed to the disease are now quickly quarantined from healthy detainees, though still allowed some contact with people outside the facility.
Lara Strick, an infectious disease physician who works with Washington state’s Department of Corrections, said by email that offering vaccines to those exposed, rather than routinely vaccinating everyone, “still leaves the rest of the population vulnerable if and when they get exposed” to mumps.
Immigrants detained by the government can be held by ICE, which oversees the long-term detainment and detention of people in the country illegally, or Customs and Border Protection, which oversees short-term detention centers, at various times. (The CDC report did not include CBP facilities.)
Outbreaks of infectious diseases are not uncommon in detention centers, “given the fact that not all folks have access to vaccines in their home country and often don’t have access to vaccines/routine medical care in the US,” Strick said.
But attorneys for immigrants, public health experts, and advocates are concerned that the current conditions in detention facilities are creating an environment unusually ripe for infectious diseases to spread. In June, a Department of Homeland Security watchdog report found “unsafe and unhealthy” conditions in four ICE detention facilities, including “inadequate medical care,” “expired food,” “dilapidated and moldy” bathrooms, and a lack of clothing and hygiene items.
But inadequate medical care has also been a long-standing issue in these facilities, according to human rights groups, which last year blamed it for contributing or leading to more than half of the deaths reported by ICE over a 16-month period between 2015 and 2017.
“Unfortunately, health care in ICE detention is a patchwork quilt,” Stern said. “Health care is delivered throughout not only dedicated ICE facilities, but in some 200 to 250 jails around the country. There is evidence that this patchwork does not function as a system.”