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Bird Flu and Civil Liberties

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January 15, 2008

The emergence of Avian Flu overseas and high profile cases of individuals with drug resistant TB last year alerted the American public to the potential for a large-scale pandemic of influenza or some other infectious disease in the near future. The Bush Administration’s response to this threat – proposals to have the military to enforce mass quarantining (a la Outbreak) – would trample individual liberty and treat sick people as criminals. And, it would be counterproductive.

Yesterday the ACLU issued a report written by three public health experts, calling for our national pandemic preparedness to be established through proven public health approaches, rather than law enforcement or national security approaches.

The report finds that coercion and brute force, the kind the current administration advocates, are rarely necessary. Such tactics gratuitously breed public distrust and encourage the people who are most in need of care to evade public health authorities.

On the other hand, effective, preventive strategies that rely on voluntary participation do work. Simply put, people do not want to contract smallpox, influenza or other dangerous diseases. They want positive government help in avoiding and treating disease. As long as public officials are working to help people rather than to punish them, people are likely to engage willingly in any and all efforts to keep their families and communities healthy.

As we observed in the Andrew Speaker case, treating patients as lawbreakers makes them more likely to evade public health officials, potentially worsening the threat of infection to the rest of us. The report shows that there is no inherent tension between civil liberties and public health, but rather public health measures are more effective when they take individual rights into account.