Bird Flu - Feds Plan To
Detain Sick-Looking Travelers
By Maggie Fox
Health and Science Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Infectious disease experts and the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns on Friday about an agreement that would allow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and customs agents to detain anyone who looked sick with bird flu.
The memorandum of understanding, a copy of which was provided to Reuters, also provides for Customs and Border Protection agents to give personal details of airline passengers to the CDC.
It was signed in October by Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. HHS spokeswoman Christina Pearson denied it was secret or sinister.
"We have had this agreement in place and it's to help CDC when there is a report of communicable diseases on an airplane," Pearson said.
"It helps them quickly and efficiently to be able to locate passengers and to inform them that they may have been exposed to some kind of communicable disease, to reassure them and tell them how to get right channels to treatment."
The memorandum mentions H5N1 avian influenza, which experts fear could cause a worldwide pandemic at any time, and also makes provision for other diseases.
There have been no outbreaks of disease that would be covered by the agreement since it was signed.
"CDC is authorized to isolate and/or quarantine arriving persons reasonably believed to be infected with or exposed to specified quarantinable diseases and to detain carriers and cargo infected with a communicable disease," it reads.
It also provides for Customs or Border Patrol agents to forcibly detain, if necessary, anyone coming in who appears to be sick while the CDC is contacted.
The CDC says this is necessary in case of a pandemic. Viruses such as flu can easily be carried by airline passengers. But Dr. Donald Henderson, an expert on influenza, smallpox and other infectious diseases who has advised the administration of President George W. Bush on such issues, calls it "silly."
"I was absolutely astonished when I saw that proposed federal regulation," Henderson said in an interview.
"It's so silly," added Henderson, who now works at the Baltimore-based Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Henderson noted that people can be infectious with influenza and other diseases long before they begin to feel sick or show any symptoms.
"You are spending huge amounts of money and have we got any evidence that this is going to do anything? Is it worth all the energy we are going to be putting into it?" he said.
The ACLU believes that protecting the public is not the motivation.
"The tracking of data on airline passengers, which can amount to building lifetime dossiers on Americans, has been a hotly debated issue for many years -- and now we find out that two government agencies may have agreed, behind the public's back, to share data," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project.
ACLU legislative counsel Tim Sparapani said: "Once again, we are seeing that DHS cannot be trusted to exhibit restraint in the handling of personal information.
"They collect information, say they'll use it for one purpose, and then they turn around and use it for another."
The Center for Biosecurity's Penny Hitchcock, a former National Institutes of Health infectious disease specialist, said the CDC risks losing the public's trust.
"The information that will be collected by CDC/HHS is part of this quarantine effort -- sharing information collected for disease prevention could be harmful," she said.
"The harm being that it will create suspicion and encourage people to regard the public health service as 'disease cops.' Why would people want to cooperate under those circumstances?"
© Reuters 2006. All Rights Reserved.
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