ACLU wants changed focus in pandemic containment planning

By Chris Strohm

Technology Daily

January 14, 2008

Government planning for a disease outbreak is too focused on treating health emergencies as a law enforcement or national security problem rather than treating victims as patients and engaging the public, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The group on Monday released a report that asserts that plans made by the Bush administration since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to protect the nation against a possible influenza epidemic put the civil liberties of U.S. residents at risk.

"Rather than focusing on well-established measures for protecting the lives and health of Americans, policymakers have recently embraced an approach that views public health policy through the prism of national security and law enforcement," the report states. "As a result ... today's pandemic prevention focuses on taking aggressive, coercive actions against those who are sick. People, rather than the disease, become the enemy."

The report, for example, cites part of a plan from the Health and Human Services

Department that calls for forced containment in the event of an influenza outbreak that could include banning public gatherings, restricting the movement of individuals and mass quarantines.

Health and Human Services Department spokesman Bill Hall acknowledged that the plan includes a containment strategy but said the ACLU report mischaracterizes it. He said the strategy calls for containment at the initial stage of an outbreak for a limited population. If that failed to control the outbreak, containment would not be used on a mass scale, he said.

"First and foremost, respecting civil liberties has been an important component ... of our planning efforts," Hall said.

The report cites an incident last year in which an Atlanta lawyer, Andrew Speaker, was diagnosed with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis. The report says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, part of HHS, treated Speaker "like a dangerous public enemy" rather than a patient. The agency told him to stay in Italy and asked the Homeland Security Department to put him on a no-fly list, essentially lumping him in with suspected criminals and terrorists, the report states.

Speaker did not follow the orders and made it back into the United States to seek treatment.

"In the case of an epidemic, the same evasive behavior seen here in one man would likely be replicated on a mass scale that would undermine the goal of stopping the disease, if the authorities pursue this kind of coercive, law enforcement approach to the crisis," the report states.

The report adds that courts are likely to be closed if a mass pandemic erupts, meaning that judicial review of quarantines and forced treatment might not be available.

The report makes a series of recommendations to improve emergency response in the areas of public health, civil liberties, protecting privacy and government accountability. Hall said HHS agrees with many of the recommendations.

"As far as the specific recommendations, the majority of them make sense and in fact we've actually implemented a number of them for some time," he said. "We're already well down the road on some of those."