Posted Oct. 5, 2005 – President George W. Bush said Tuesday that he's considering using the U.S. military to quarantine parts of the country in the event of a widespread epidemic of bird flu.
"The best way to deal with a pandemic is to isolate it and keep it isolated in the region in which it begins," he said.
The president said he's "not predicting an outbreak" of bird flu, but told reporters in a Rose Garden news conference that he's just suggesting "we need to be thinking about it."
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Why a military quarantine is necessary.
As proof that Bush has indeed been “thinking about it,” in April he signed an executive order listing pandemic influenza among the federal government's list of communicable diseases for which quarantine could be ordered.
A recent draft of the U.S. government's emergency plan warned that as many as 200 million Americans could be stricken with avian flu if it became a pandemic. Experts warn that a global, cataclysmic pandemic is not a question of 'if' but 'when,' said Bill Frist, a medical doctor and the Republican leader in the Senate.
Bush and other proponents of a militarily-enforced quarantine say that troops can be used to isolate the pandemic, because they can be mobilized quickly, along with military equipment and communications.
Health officials are particularly concerned about avian flu because it has proved to be extremely lethal when it jumps from birds to humans. Of the 116 known cases in humans since 2003, more than half – 60 – ended in death. There are no confirmed cases of human-to-human transmission, but that could change at any time because influenza viruses constantly mutate, according to pathologists.
"It's scary," said Sen. Tom Harkin, (D-Iowa) who has urged the administration to take a more aggressive approach. “If that pandemic hit next month, we'd be in a world of hurt."
Why there should be no quarantine.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, associate dean of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and director of its National Center for Disaster Preparedness, told The Associated Press, that the president's suggestion was dangerous.
Giving the military a law enforcement role would be an "extraordinarily draconian measure" that would be unnecessary if the nation had built the capability for rapid vaccine production, ensured a large supply of anti-virals like Tamiflu and not allowed the degradation of the public health system, Redlener said.
"The translation of this is martial law in the United States," Redlener said.
Gene Healy, a senior editor at the conservative Cato Institute, said Bush would risk undermining "a fundamental principle of American law" by tinkering with the act, which does not hinder the military's ability to respond to a crisis, CNN reports.
"What it does is set a high bar for the use of federal troops in a policing role," he wrote in a commentary on the group's Web site. "That reflects America's traditional distrust of using standing armies to enforce order at home, a distrust that's well-justified."
Healy said soldiers are not trained as police officers, and putting them in a civilian law enforcement role "can result in serious collateral damage to American life and liberty."
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