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US, Mexican Ministers Discuss Biological Threats - 2001-10-15

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson is in El Paso, Texas, for meetings with his Mexican counterpart, Julio Frenk Mora. The Anthrax scare in the United States was not originally on the agenda for the talks, but it is now.

The two top health officials for the United States and Mexico arrived in El Paso Sunday as U.S. concerns heightened about possible terrorist use of anthrax as a weapon. Several people in Florida and New York are being treated for the disease, and criminal investigations are underway in both states.

Secretary Thompson says he wants to develop better coordination with Mexico to make sure both countries are prepared for this and other possible biological threats. "We are looking at the possibilities of finding ways in which we might be able to allow for Mexico to join with us in purchasing some additional vaccines and pharmaceuticals for anthrax and for smallpox," he said.

Mr. Thompson says the U.S. government is going to develop 12 million vaccinations for anthrax to have on hand in case there is a need for a massive number of inoculations. Still, he stresses anthrax is not contagious. It cannot be spread from an infected person to others, but the spores can be transmitted in dust or powder form.

Mexican Health Minister Julio Frenk says cooperation between the two nations is necessary. "Health has no borders," he said, "so the only way we can deal effectively with the health of the populations on both sides of the border is to work jointly."

The main purpose of the meeting, which was planned long before the current Anthrax scare, is to promote better cooperation in the fight against tuberculosis. The experience along the border with this disease demonstrates the difficulties of dealing with viral and bacteriological threats. Antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis have been turning up on both sides of the border in recent years, often carried by immigrants or laborers who go back and forth across the line. Last year there were 56 cases of tuberculosis reported in El Paso and more than 200 cases in the Mexican city, Juarez, on the other side of the Rio Grande River.