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Do U.S. pandemic plans threaten rights, ACLU asks

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By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor, yahoo! news
January 14, 2008

U.S. policy in preparing for a potential bird flu pandemic is veering dangerously
toward a heavy-handed law-enforcement approach, the American Civil Liberties
Union said on Monday.

The group, which advocates for individuals’ legal rights based on the U.S.
Constitution, said federal government pandemic plans were confusing and could
emphasize a police and military approach to outbreaks of disease, instead of
a more sensible public health approach.

"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 ACLU report reads.

But the U.S. Health and Human Services Department (HHS) said the group had
misunderstood the government’s approach and said current plans already incorporate
many of the ACLU’s recommendations.

Infectious disease experts agree that a pandemic of some sort of influenza
is inevitable, and most worries focus on H5N1 avian influenza. Although it mainly
attacks birds, the virus has infected 349 people since 2003 and killed 216 of

A few mutations could turn it into a highly infectious disease for people and
could kill millions globally.

Most countries are working to develop plans to deal with the potential consequences.
The U.S. plans are available on Web sites such as

The ACLU said it was worried that the plan called for military and police involvement
in enforcing a quarantine.

The ACLU experts said they were especially disturbed by an October executive
order from President George W. Bush that directed HHS to establish a task force
to plan for potential catastrophes like a terrorist attack, pandemic influenza
or a natural disaster that would ensure full use of Department of Defense resources.

The Bush order does not specify what the Department of Defense role would be,
but also mentions military medical research facilities that have played a role
in health for decades.

"Pandemic planning today tends to emphasize mandatory vaccination and
forced treatment," the ACLU’s Tania Simoncelli told a news conference.

"It also means that sick people are being treated as criminals and enemies
of the state rather than individuals in need of care."

The ACLU said plans should focus on how to help people stay home without losing
pay, and instead of merely advising citizens to stockpile food, should provide
for ways to help them do so.

HHS spokesman Bill Hall said the government plan stressed community and individual

"They have mischaracterized our planning efforts. They are confusing a
containment attempt as our overall pandemic response once the virus has spread
beyond our ability to stop it," Hall said in a telephone interview.

"Respecting civil liberties has been an important component of our pandemic

He said many of the recommendations ACLU makes, such as voluntary vaccination
and treatment, were in the plan.

(Editing by Will Dunham and Philip Barbara)
Source URL:

From the ACLU:

ACLU Report: Government Must Abandon Misguided Approach to Pandemic
Preparedness (1/14/2008)


WASHINGTON – As fears of a flu pandemic have grown, the Bush administration
has pursued a misguided approach to pandemic preparation that relies on a law
enforcement/national security approach, rather than a public health approach
to the problem, and which exposes Americans to unnecessary risk. That is the
finding of an expert report being released today by the American Civil Liberties
Union at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

“A law enforcement approach is just the wrong tool for the job when it
comes to fighting disease,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s
Technology and Liberty Program. “History makes clear that a heavy-handed,
coercive approach to pandemics that treats the sick as potential enemies is
not only an unnecessary violation of civil liberties but is also ineffective
from a public health standpoint and will leave more Americans stranded, sick
and untreated.”

The report was prepared for the ACLU by three prominent experts on the subject:
George Annas and Wendy K. Mariner of Boston University School of Public Health,
and Wendy E. Parmet of Northeastern Law School.

“When people are sick, they want help – help getting treated and
help ensuring they don’t make others sick,” said Parmet. “History
shows that treating sick people like potential enemies only spurs them to avoid
the authorities and exacerbates the spread of disease.”

The report was being released today in a press conference at the National Press
Club in Washington DC, followed by a panel discussion with several top experts.

“It is true that there are always a few cases where individuals flout
the law and put other people at risk,” said Parmet. “But existing
government authorities provide ample powers for dealing with such cases –
and the problem is that our pandemic preparations are being centered around
such contingencies, rather than from the long list of gaping needs that public
health experts say we face in preparing for and responding to a real pandemic.”

The report is online at

Video of an ACLU-hosted panel discussion featuring Parmet and other experts
discussing pandemic preparedness will be made available online at