Bizarre twist in TB case

Passengers who shared a flight with infected honeymooner aghast to learn he'd had access to a tuberculosis expert – his new father-in-law

Jun 01, 2007 04:30 AM

Associated Press

ATLANTA–One thing is clear about Andrew Speaker, the honeymooner who crisscrossed Europe and the Atlantic, putting fellow airline passengers at risk of getting an especially dangerous strain of tuberculosis: He can't claim ignorance.

Speaker, who arrived at a Denver hospital under armed guard yesterday, didn't just have doctors' warnings against flying to Europe, and again against flying back to the U.S. by way of Canada. As a personal injury lawyer, he presumably knew about the danger of reckless behaviour.

And most amazingly, Speaker, 31, has a new father-in-law with a vast knowledge of the disease: Bob Cooksey is a microbiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and a specialist in TB and other bacteria. Cooksey said yesterday he gave Speaker some "fatherly advice" when he learned the young man had contracted the disease.

Cooksey would not comment on whether he reported his son-in-law to U.S. health authorities, and the CDC did not explain how the case came to their attention. He did, however, issue a statement yesterday saying Speaker did not contract the disease from him or the CDC labs.

Yesterday, travellers who flew on the same flights as Speaker angrily accused him of putting hundreds of other people's lives in danger.

It is "outrageous" how many people's health he has risked, said Laney Wiggins, 21, one of more than two dozen University of South Carolina-Aiken students who are getting skin tests because they shared a flight with Speaker.

In Canada, all 28 of the passengers who sat near Speaker on a Czech Airlines flight from Prague to Montreal last week have been identified. The Public Health Agency says authorities here only learned Speaker was in Canada a day after he left.

Those 28 on the Czech flight now could face months of anxiety and testing as they wait to learn if, despite what experts believe are low odds, they were infected with the drug- resistant strain.

"It's not a trivial thing to be exposed to tuberculosis and get infected at the best of times," said Dr. Andrew Simor, head of microbiology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. "Here we're talking about such a resistant strain that the treatment is that much harder."

The 28 people – 19 Canadians and nine people of other nationalities – either shared a row with Speaker or were two rows in front or behind him on Czech Airlines Flight 0104 from Prague to Montreal on May 24. Of the Canadians, 14 were from Quebec and five from Ontario.

Speaker said he knew he had TB when he flew from Atlanta to Europe in mid-May for his wedding, but that he did not find out until he was in Rome that it was a strain considered especially dangerous.

He then flew to Montreal, believing U.S. authorities had placed him on a no-fly list. He then drove across the border to the U.S.



Hard-to-cure TB

XDR TB is short for "extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis," a strain of TB that resists treatment even with advanced antibiotics.

TB is a sometimes fatal bacterial infection usually attacking the lungs.

TB is an airborne disease – a person with it in his or her lungs can spread it by coughing, sneezing or simply talking.

Poor ventilation makes spread more likely; a compromised immune system makes a person more susceptible.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention followed more than 2,600 people on 191 flights on which seven highly infectious TB patients flew between 1992 and 1994 – only two confirmed infections were found, and those individuals never developed active TB.