TB-infected US man defends travel, apologizes
A contrite American pleaded for forgiveness Friday, after sparking an international health alert by criss-crossing the Atlantic while infected with a rare, drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis.
"I'm very sorry for any grief or pain that I have caused anyone," 31-year-old attorney Andrew Speaker told ABC television in an emotional interview from an isolation room in a hospital in Denver, Colorado.
But Speaker, partially hidden by a hygienic mask, said he had been told by doctors before flying via France to Greece to get married that he was not a risk.
"I just hope they can forgive me and understand that I really believed that I wasn't putting people at risk, because that's what the people told me," he said with his wife Sarah by his side.
Speaker sparked an alert across two continents when, allegedly disregarding orders by US medical authorities, he flew with his fiance to several destinations in Europe for their honeymoon.
After health officials tracked them down in Italy, Speaker also allegedly again ignored advice and took commercial flights to Montreal, Canada, then drove back into the United States.
Upon his return, he was whisked Thursday into isolation at the National Jewish Research Center in Denver, where he is to be kept in isolation and treated for the rare case of extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, XDR TB, which caused a global alert.
"The patient is doing well today ... It is our opinion that he is of low communicability," presenting no typical symptoms such as a productive cough, his doctor, Gwen Huitt, told reporters.
Huitt said he had undergone many tests, had begun medication and that additional medications would be phased in in the coming week.
"If he was not doing well, we would know that clinically" and take action, Huitt told a news conference.
She also tried to reassure people at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center: "There is no risk to any patients or any community members with regard to their personal health."
Speaker's wife Sarah Cooksey -- who together with her eight-year-old daughter have tested negative for tuberculosis -- meanwhile told ABC that although she can no longer kiss her new husband, she had no second thoughts about the marriage.
"I love my husband very much," she said. "And I wouldn't change a thing. I wouldn't trade whatever time I have with him -- no, no second thoughts, no."
In an ironic twist, Cooksey's father is a prominent TB researcher for the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
On Friday he issued a statement denying that Speaker's infection originated from himself or his CDC laboratory.
Speaker insisted he had never been given explicit instructions by the CDC to stay in the United States to avoid risking infecting others on long-distance aircraft.
"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."
"I repeatedly asked my doctors, is my family at risk, is anybody at risk for this? ... They told me I wasn't contagious, that I wasn't dangerous."
Speaker said he and his father taped the meeting with CDC officials when they discussed his pending trip to Europe.
"They said, 'we would prefer that you not go on the trip.'" But Speaker claimed CDC officials then admitted that he would not be arrested if he attempted to travel, and that they were giving him the warning because "we have to cover ourselves."
He also called it a "complete lie" that CDC officials told him not to take a commercial flight back from Italy and to wait until they made special arrangements for his return to the United States.
"Just imagine being in a foreign country and being told that your government is going to leave you there. You're just going to die," his wife said through tears.
Speaker apologized for the TB tests other passengers who shared his flights across the Atlantic and around Europe must undergo to be sure they were not infected by him.
Speaker traveled on Air France from Atlanta to Paris on May 12 and to Athens two days later. He flew on Olympic Airlines to a Greek island on May 16, returned to Athens from Mykonos on May 21, and traveled on to Rome the same day.
On the 24th, he flew on Czech Airlines to Prague and then to Montreal.
More than 5,000 cases of this virulent form of tuberculosis have been diagnosed worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In South Africa the WHO confirmed 53 cases of XDR TB in September, all but one of them fatal, triggering a worldwide health alert.
Most of those patients were also infected with the AIDS virus. Elsewhere it has had a far lower mortality rate, the WHO says.
Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.