TB patient "very sorry" for endangering others

WASHINGTON Fri Jun 1, 2007 8:18pm EDT

1 of 4. Andrew Speaker is pictured in this undated photograph, released by the University of Georgia School of Law on May 31, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/University of Georgia School of Law/Handout

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. lawyer who flew to and from Europe with a perilous type of tuberculosis to continue with his wedding and honeymoon apologized in comments aired on Friday to passengers he put at risk of infection.

A U.S. customs official meanwhile faulted "a breakdown" by an officer who did not detain the lawyer at the Canadian border.

"I'm very sorry for any grief or pain that I have caused anyone," Andrew Speaker, 31, told the ABC program "Good Morning America" in an interview at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, where he is being treated.

"I just hope they can forgive me and understand that I really believed that I wasn't putting people at risk," Speaker added in the taped interview. He said he did not believe he was ill enough to endanger others.

Speaker became a fugitive after he proceeded with wedding and honeymoon plans in Europe despite warnings from U.S. health authorities not to travel. He flew from Atlanta to Paris, on to Greece for his wedding and to Rome for his honeymoon.

After U.S. health authorities reached him in Rome and told him not to fly home on a commercial airliner, Speaker and his new wife fled to Prague for a commercial flight to Montreal and re-entered the United States by car. He drove through an upstate New York border crossing even though his name was on a list to detain due to medical reasons.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Commissioner Jayson Ahern said the agency is investigating a border crossing officer failed to stop him. Ahern faulted the officer, whom he did not identify, but said agency procedures would be reviewed.

'BREAKDOWN BY AN INDIVIDUAL'

"Just because we had a breakdown by an individual doesn't mean that we need to completely throw the system out. I think we need to continue to build redundancies, continue to look at gaps and continue to go ahead and refine our protocols," Ahern added.

Ahern said the U.S. government did not alert Canada to be on the lookout because there was no indication Speaker would go there.

Speaker is now being held in near-isolation at the hospital in Denver for treatment for extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, or XDR TB. While no more contagious than other TB strains, it is very hard to treat. TB is a sometimes fatal bacterial infection usually attacking the lungs.

The isolation order from U.S. health authorities was their first such action since 1963. The case has touched off an international health alert and prompted U.S. lawmakers to announce plans to investigate the actions of border agents and the CDC.

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

Speaker told ABC he has tape-recordings proving that U.S. health authorities only advised him not to travel, but did not forbid it.

"At every turn it was conveyed to me that my family, my wife, my daughter, that no one was at risk and that I was not contagious," Speaker said.

ABC interviewer Diane Sawyer and Speaker at one point donned hospital masks to prevent possible infection.

Speaker accused the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of abandoning him by asking him to check into a health facility in Rome instead of returning to the United States via commercial airliner for treatment. Speaker and his wife Sarah said the government refused to help arrange alternate transportation home.

The CDC has said it had been arranging for a flight home for Speaker, perhaps on a CDC aircraft.

"It's very real that I could have died there ... I felt very abandoned," Speaker said.

CDC officials and an infectious disease expert at the Denver hospital said Speaker was not especially infectious and does not feel ill.

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