AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) – Republican Gov. Paul LePage says asylum seekers are the biggest problem in Maine because they bring in diseases, including AIDS and what he called the "ziki fly."
LePage said Tuesday at a public forum in Freeport that foreign people seeking asylum expose the public to diseases. The "ziki fly" he mentioned was a reference to Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that might be linked to abnormally small heads in newborns. So far, it's affected countries mostly in South and Central America and the Caribbean.
LePage said asylum seekers also bring hepatitis C, tuberculosis and HIV.
Several people in the crowd responded, "Shame! Shame!"
Public health experts say they haven't seen any data linking asylum-seekers to the spread of infectious diseases in Maine.
"I don't think the governor has a really good grasp of public health," said Megan Hannan, executive director of the Frannie Peabody Center in Portland, which treats people with HIV/AIDS.
LePage said asylum-seekers differ from refugees in that they overstay their visas and do not receive a medical assessment.
"And what happens is you get hepatitis C, tuberculosis, AIDS, HIV, the 'ziki fly,' all these types of other foreign diseases that find a way to our land," he said.
LePage has strongly opposed providing welfare benefits for asylum seekers and has been holding "town hall" forums around the state to discuss his agenda.
Tuesday's event at the Freeport Public Library was more contentious than most. Many in the audience heckled him, and LePage at times shouted to be heard. Several people walked out of the meeting.
LePage has a history of attacking asylum seekers, said Alain Jean Claude Nahimana, coordinator of the Maine Immigrants' Rights Coalition,
"He's blaming immigrants and minorities in general for anything that happens in the state of Maine that he is not able to handle," said Nahimana, a former asylum seeker from Burundi. "The governor's remarks seem to be yet another attempt to use fear-mongering to pit one group of Mainers against another."
LePage has become nationally known for his colorful comments, including his assertion in January that drug dealers with names like "D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty," come to Maine to sell heroin and "impregnate a young white girl before they leave." He later called it a slip of the tongue.
Last week, LePage was accused of insensitivity over a joke about a Chinese investor's name.
Since 2010, the number of cases of acute hepatitis in Maine jumped from two in 2010 to 31 in 2014, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The state's HIV infection rate has remained flat over the past decade.
The rise in hepatitis C cases is due to an increase in intravenous drug use, said Hannan. She said some immigrants, primarily from Africa, have HIV and tuberculosis, but there is no evidence they're spreading the disease. She said there are no known cases of the Zika virus in Maine.
In 2014, LePage sought to prevent nurse Kaci Hickox from entering public places after she returned home to Maine after treating people with Ebola in Sierra Leone. She had no symptoms of the virus.