Lou Dobbs, nutjob

Several readers wrote in criticizing me when I called Lou Dobbs a "nutjob" recently. I am going to have to check the weather reports in Hell, where I expect some of the more violent deceased hockey players are strapping on their skates, because I am about to point to an article in the New York Times justifying my judgment.

One of several populist poses Dobbs has adopted is the claim that immigrants have caused a drastic rise in leprosy.  In 2005 one of his correspondents claimed that there have been 7,000 cases of leprosy in the past three years.

60 Minutes recently did a segment on Dobbs, and dredged up that claim. David Leonhardt of the New York Times writes:
When Lesley Stahl of "60 Minutes" sat down to interview Mr. Dobbs on camera, she mentioned the report and told him that there didn't seem to be much evidence for it.
"Well, I can tell you this," he replied. "If we reported it, it's a fact."

With that Orwellian chestnut, Mr. Dobbs escalated the leprosy dispute into a full-scale media brouhaha. The next night, back on
his own program, the same CNN correspondent who had done the earlier report, Christine Romans, repeated the 7,000 number, and Mr. Dobbs added that, if anything, it was probably an underestimate.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (a group I am not particularly fond of) took out an ad demanding a retraction, but Dobbs refused. So Leonhardt did some digging of his own.
To sort through all this, I called James L. Krahenbuhl, the director of the National Hansen's Disease Program [Hansen's Disease is the official medical name for leprosy], an arm of the federal government. Leprosy in the United States is indeed largely a disease of immigrants who have come from Asia and Latin America. And the official leprosy statistics do show about 7,000 diagnosed cases - but that's over the last 30 years, not the last three.

The peak year was 1983, when there were 456 cases. After that, reported cases dropped steadily, falling to just 76 in 2000. Last year, there were 137.

"It is not a public health problem - that's the bottom line," Mr. Krahenbuhl told me. "You've got a country of 300 million people. This is not something for the public to get alarmed about." Much about the disease remains unknown, but researchers think people get it through prolonged close contact with someone who already has it.
What about the increase over the last six years, to 137 cases from 76? Is that significant?

"No," Mr. Krahenbuhl said. It could be a statistical fluctuation, or it could be a result of better data collection in recent years. In any event, the 137 reported cases last year were fewer than in any year from 1975 to 1996.
For the record, I do believe that there is legitimate concern about a substantial risk of disease associated with travelers from the Third World, whether immigrants legal or not, or just visitors. Sanitation, disease, and personal hygiene are very different in other places, and visitors bring with them both bad bugs and bad habits. We need to do a good job of health screening of travelers, and we need to enforce sensible public health measures. 

I am no expert, but I think that tuberculosis is a serious threat, in fact, as witnessed by the recent news that man carrying a resistant strain of TB flew to Europe and back, and on several flights in Europe. TB is an insidious disease, and is relatively easy to spread, by coughing and/or spitting. 

SARS scared the hell out of people all over the world, killing some in Toronto and other First World cities. Luckily for us, it was not as contagious as feared. But we might not be so lucky next time. I am not in favor of fortress America cut off from the world. But I recognize there are health risks in exposing First World People to Third World diseases.

I know whereof I speak. I almost died from hepatitis contracted in Laos in 1972. The doctors told me I might not make it. Ever day lived since I got out of my hospital bed after three months has been a gift.

I remember the first time I traveled from Asia to the United States in 1968, and visitors from the Philippines had to present chest X-rays at the health inspection station at Anchorage Airport, our port of entry. Our flight to San Francisco from Tokyo could not continue its journey until they were all cleared as free of TB. Such inspections are now a thing of the past. Maybe that's appropriate, but I am not confidant that we can sustain millions of undocumented visitors without some adverse public health effects.

My point about Dobbs is that he is reckless, careless with facts, and unwilling to make a correction when caught. Thus, he discredits not only himself, but others who are more careful. A nutjob, in my humble opinion, making it harder for rational critics to be heard.

Hat tip: Sally Vee