ACLU Report: U.S. Flu Response Efforts Threaten Citizen Rights

Jan. 15, 2008
In preparing for the possible spread of pandemic avian influenza, U.S. policymakers are steadily increasing their focus on law enforcement and national security oriented measures, tactics the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says produce no results.

Instead, ACLU suggested that the federal government abandon its compulsory containment strategy for pandemic flu and use an approach more in line with the traditional public health protocol that centers on voluntary participation. This was one of the suggestions ACLU included in its report, Pandemic Preparedness: The Need for Public Health, which was released Jan. 14 at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

According to the report, the government’s tendency to turn to national security measures for pandemic flu prevention can lead to “aggressive coercive actions against those who are sick” and does nothing to help infected patients. The report pointed out that this strategy is in fact counterproductive, as it alienates the sick and prompts them to not seek treatment.

The report’s co-author Wendy Parmat, a Northeastern University professor specializing in public health law, and other ACLU experts stressed that the United States should focus on helping people and their communities through education and health care provisions.

“At the federal level, there is an undue emphasis on coercion and the worst-case scenario,” Parmat said at the news conference. “We need to treat people as patients and stop focusing on the one to two people among millions who are not compliant.”

“We need to treat the disease as the enemy, not the people,” she added.

“Help-Yourself” Approach Proven Ineffective

In October, President George W. Bush issued an executive order that directed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish a task force for potential catastrophes – such as terrorist attacks, pandemic flu or natural disasters – that guarantees full use of Department of Defense resources. ACLU experts worry that such pandemic flu plans will involve the military and use government force to implement quarantine.

A call made to HHS for comment was not returned.

According to the expert panel, which included ACLU Director Barry Steinhardt, the “one-size-fits-all” approach to disaster planning, incorporated since 9/11, prompts many states to adopt pandemic flu plans that are poorly coordinated and dangerously counterproductive. The new strategy should focus on, for instance, helping people stay home without losing pay, as opposed to just merely advising individuals to stockpile food.

“We have learned from the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, that the ‘help-yourself’ mantra is not realistic,” Parmat said.

Parmat also commented on how pandemic preparedness issues will affect workers. Speaking exclusively to on the subject, she said that a coercive approach would especially be detrimental for the emergency response and health care workforce.

“[Responders] want to help their patients, but at the same time, they don’t want to feel like they are targets just because they are exposed due to treating their patients,” she said.

While Parmat and Steinhardt were quick to note that they didn’t agree with the government’s strategy, they acknowledged the efforts to combat pandemic infection and called attempts to increase communication and cooperation between law enforcement and public health officials “a great effort.”

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