Gov. Paul LePage is doubling down on his comments that asylum seekers are to blame for an increase in infectious diseases in Maine.
In the past, LePage has suggested asylum seekers bring diseases such as HIV, AIDS, and the "Ziki fly" (a reference to the Zika virus) to the state. Public health officials, such as the executive director of the Maine Public Health Association, have stated that there is “no data” to support LePage’s claims on this issue.
At a town hall meeting in Augusta Wednesday night, an audience member asked the Governor if he would apologize to asylum seekers for associating them with an increase in disease.
LePage said he had statistics that would prove his point.
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"The fact of the matter is you can get the data on severe diseases such as tuberculosis, Hepatitis C and B, HIV, those are on the increase in the state, and I’ll tell you there are certain areas in the state there is an increase on," LePage said. "Because of HIPAA laws, I can’t tell you who they are. So the fact is there is an increase in disease, we have it by data – we don’t have it by name."
Necn made multiple requests to Samantha Edwards, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine CDC, as well as Adrienne Bennett, spokesperson for Governor LePage, and did not receive a response.
The most recent information available from the Maine CDC is from 2009-2013, and it shows an overall increase in Hep. C, an overall decrease in Hep. B, a decrease in HIV, and a slight increase in tuberculosis over the five-year period.
The CDC report does not disclose names or countries of origin for those cases.
"I think these remarks are very troubling because they do not appear to based on any facts or data," said Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project. Her organization helps asylum seekers with various legal processes.
"We work with hundreds of asylum seekers and we’re not aware of medical issues in the community, so this really has the danger of brining a perception that’s not deserved," Roche said.
Some immigrants see the comments are dangerous.
"It’s frightening," said Alain Nahimana, coordinator for the Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition, who came to Maine as an asylum seeker.
"For me, it’s a continuation of the wrong perceptions and wrong statements about asylum seekers," he said.
Others say LePage is not focusing on the right issues surrounding public health.
"If the governor is truly concerned about the spread of infectious diseases in Maine, he should ensure that our state’s public health system is fully staffed and increase access to affordable health care," said Robyn Merrill, executive director of the Maine Equal Justice Partners.
"Instead, he has made it harder for people, newcomers and old-time Mainers alike, to access the health care services they need to stay healthy," she said.