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Jan 29, 2005: Tuberculosis scare halts Hmong move

Hmong refugee resettlement was temporarily halted this week by the U.S. State Department because it is worried about a deadly drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis.

Refugees were being relocated to the United States from the Wat Tham Krabok, a refugee camp in Thailand. The relocation started in June, with a total of 1,000 Hmong coming to the United States. Merced has been a popular destination for many of the refugees, and more than 400 have already come to the area, said Richard Rios, program manager for community health services for the Merced County Public Health Department.

He said that although the federal government is worried about tuberculosis, no Hmong refugees in Merced have tested positive for the active disease.

"We have had 403 Hmong refugees relocate to the area, and 402 of them have come in for health screenings so far," Rios said. The moratorium was executed because a number of cases of TB that are resistant to drugs have been discovered in refugees waiting to be relocated from the Wat.

Approximately 20 cases of active TB have been found in California refugees. Although the immigrants are screened in the Thai camp, Rios said it is sometimes difficult to detect a case of active TB.

Once the Hmong arrive here, more extensive tests are done, and that is when the TB is found, he said. Tuberculosis is primarily an illness of the respiratory system, and is spread by coughing and sneezing. Each year, about 2 million people die from the curable disease. Rios said Merced has a very low incidence of TB, with fewer than 20 new cases detected each year. Another 300 Hmong had been expected to arrive in Merced before the end of the year, Rios said.

Until the relocation starts up again, the local public health department will review records and make sure follow-up TB evaluations are conducted for all immigrants. A total of 6,500 Hmong refugees were scheduled to come to the United States, and Palee Moua, director of Southeast Asian case management for Healthy House Within a Match Coalition, said about 51 more are expected in Merced during the month of February.

Moua said getting good health care for the 403 refugees that are already here has been difficult because of transportation problems and mistrust of Western medicine by the refugees.

"We are trying to visit all the refugees and explain why they need to go to the doctor, but that has been very slow," Moua said.