Sunday, May 10, 2009




It happens every time there's an epidemic of disease or a serious threat of bioterror and it's happened again in the last week or so, as cases of the swine flu that apparently originated in central Mexico appeared in California and around the world: Activists and politicians tried to take advantage.

The last time this happened came in 2001, when the anthrax scare that followed the terrorism of September 11 helped ex-President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney hustle the Patriot Act through Congress and seriously abridge civil rights in this country.

It's happening again right now. Zero population growth activists not affiliated with the formal organization of that name, now called the Population Connection, insist the latest flu epidemic is one of nature's attempts to reduce the "excessive" human population of this planet.

Anti-illegal immigration activists like the Minutemen call for a total closure of the Mexican border, insisting it makes no sense to discourage Americans from traveling to Mexico because they might be infected, while still allowing Mexicans to enter this country. Of course, they say nothing about whether they'd like Americans caught in Mexico at the time the epidemic began to return home. Their call for border closing was echoed quickly by Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter of San Diego County, a longtime battler against illegal immigration.

"Show me a more practical way than closing the border to prevent this from spreading and I'll go for it," says Jim Gilchrist, founder and president of the Minuteman Project. "Until we know exactly what's going on here, we have to do something."

These are predictable responses to disaster, examples of the notion that no good crisis should ever be wasted.

But the more important issue is whether current laws are adequate to deal with epidemics if they become widespread enough to merit the term pandemic, which the swine flu apparently will not.

This issue, too, comes up every time there's a serious mass threat to public health.

When anthrax seemed a serious bioterror threat in 2001 and 2002, the only doctor then serving in the state Legislature thought existing laws were not good enough. Keith Richman, a Republican who has helped run a Glendale medical group since he was termed out in 2006, tried to pass a state law giving government extraordinary authority when times become even more threatening than they seem now.

Richman essentially wanted the state to adopt a plan proposed by the federal Centers for Disease Control, the Atlanta-based agency that deals with major threats to public health.

Encouraged by authoritarian elements in the Bush administration, the CDC wanted to have public health agencies take over all hospitals, seize drug supplies, quarantine everyone exposed to infectious diseases, force vaccinations on the entire populace, use armed police to confine the quarantined and draft doctors to treat victims.

The CDC plan wasn't adopted, nor was Richman's bill. But the former lawmaker, who would be mayor of the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles today if an attempt at separate cityhood had passed in 2002, still thinks current laws aren't good enough.

"I think there's some ambiguity in issues of quarantine and isolation," he said. "I'm comfortable with what's going on now, things like warnings about what to do when you have certain symptoms, washing hands often and isolating people known to be infected with this flu strain. We wanted to address potentially more severe outbreaks than this one has been so far, where it's still not clear the government can act sufficiently to stop things."

It is clear federal authorities have the power to close schools, public buildings and public transportation in a pandemic much worse than the current swine flu.

It's entirely unclear whether government should be able to suspend many civil liberties, draft doctors and essentially imprison disease victims. Few would quarrel with the notion of state and federal health officials commandeering hospitals in a true pandemic.

Add to this picture the fact that the governor already can do some of that. He has the power to use private property, including hospitals, in times of emergency. The state also can draft private personnel including doctors in emergencies. The present governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has already suspended time-consuming competitive bidding for anything needed to fight the swine flu and waived some certification requirements for lab personnel in order to speed blood testing.

But no one has resolved the issue of whether health personnel drafted to work in a pandemic are exempt from liability for deaths or damages to quarantined persons or whether adults can be forced to accept vaccinations if they contradict religious faiths or other beliefs.

These questions and others beg for resolution before a true threat to mass public health appears. But they are among the many key questions state lawmakers consistently ignore as they bicker about budgets and other more routine matters.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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