Quarantine officers work the front lines to combat disease

Sunday, July 15, 2007
Lt. Cmdr. Rendi Murphree Bacon, a quarantine public health officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, stood inside the isolation room June 28 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. (Charles Rex Arbogast ~ Associated Press)

CHICAGO -- A day's work for Lt. Cmdr. Rendi Murphree Bacon can mean face time with lab rats, frozen specimens or a baboon-hunting trophy. It can bring refugees from far-flung nations where the crippling polio virus has resurfaced or a traveler with a human skull souvenir.

The 40-year-old biologist with the U.S. Public Health Service is a quarantine officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at O'Hare International Airport, one of the busiest hubs in the world.

Her duties include investigating reports of illness on international flights, checking the health of arriving refugees, inspecting animal products and screening cargo. She can seize articles that lack proper permits.

Once there were hundreds of officers like her working on the front lines to prevent potential health threats from entering the U.S. Now there are fewer than 100 -- a number the CDC has been rebuilding since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the 2003 SARS outbreak.

The recent international scare involving Andrew Speaker, the Georgia lawyer with drug-resistant tuberculosis who flew to several countries before being ordered into isolation, has focused fresh attention on health threats on airlines. The quarantine order in Speaker's case was the first issued by the federal government since a patient with smallpox was isolated in 1963, according to the CDC.

CDC quarantine officers have the legal authority to detain anyone who may have cholera, diphtheria, infectious tuberculosis, plague, smallpox, yellow fever, viral hemorrhagic fevers, SARS and pandemic flu.

In an emerging influenza pandemic, Bacon could force the hospital isolation of ill passengers -- and quarantine even healthy passengers.

"In my lifetime I may never see that, which is fine with me," Bacon says.

Every year, about 120 million people enter and leave the United States through 474 airports, seaports and land border crossings, according to the private Institute of Medicine.

With triumphs in public health such as the eradication of smallpox, the U.S. quarantine system shrank from 600 employees in 1953 to 70 employees in 2004. It now has 83 workers and an $11 million budget.

Last year, Bacon's office handled 311 reports of illness on international flights. It also helped with 14 investigations that involved tracking down passengers who sat near people whose illnesses arose after their flights.

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