- WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 Monday.
- The group, which advocates for individuals' legal rights
based on the 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 them.
- 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
- 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 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
- 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 involvement.
- "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. <snipt>
- "Respecting civil liberties has been an important
component of our pandemic planning."
- 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)