Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Enforcing quarantines

President Bush wants authorization to enforce medical quarantines with military force should a Bird flu epidemic hit the US, so says this report:

President George W. Bush asked Congress on Tuesday to consider giving him powers to use the military to enforce quarantines in case of an avian influenza epidemic.

He said the military, and perhaps the National Guard, might be needed to take such a role if the feared H5N1 bird flu virus changes enough to cause widespread human infection.

"If we had an outbreak somewhere in the United States, do we not then quarantine that part of the country? And how do you, then, enforce a quarantine?" Bush asked at a news conference.

"It's one thing to shut down airplanes. It's another thing to prevent people from coming in to get exposed to the avian flu. And who best to be able to effect a quarantine?" Bush added.

Back up a minute...I can hear just about everyone younger than 50 asking exactly what is a quarantine and why would you need such a thing? And that is the bigger problem.

Not many people younger than my parents age and living in America have any practical experience with the concept of a quarantine. For most of America's history however, quarantining was a common and effective procedure for limiting exposure to serious infectious diseases (smallpox, chickenpox, measles, mumps).

The development of vaccines for most if not all of these bugs has over the last several generations eliminated the need for quarantining the infected or in any way limiting contact between the rest of the population in an affected area to lessen the risk of exposure. While that has greatly affected us for good, it has erased the concept from our collective mind and memory. Is that a good thing though, should we face a serious medical emergency on par with the Spanish Flu of 1918?

When I ponder the need for going back to a quarantine (even one-time), I fear for several things. First and foremost, I don't see an America willing to limit it's 'freedoms' even in the face of an obviously dangerous medical emergency. We don't comprehend the nature of a quarantine anymore nor understand the necessity of it--I firmly do not believe that people will voluntarily isolate themselves in the manner required for making such a move work. In that environment, I fear that military force might be necessary.

"One option is the use of a military that's able to plan and move. So that's why I put it on the table. I think it's an important debate for Congress to have."

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