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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Crazy Policies Harm Communities

Today I would like to talk about a very controversial issue, our crumbling disease management policies.

Recently our news headlines burned into our memory the story of a tuberculosis patient who travelled by plane to Europe, exposing dozens of people to what was thought to be a deadly, drug-resistant form of tuberculosis. The public screamed about the irresponsibility of this act and rightly so. But let me remind you that another deadly disease is being spread without notice - AIDS/HIV.

Twenty years ago the existence of this disease became public knowledge, thought at the time to be only a homosexual community problem. Over the years, it quickly spread into the heterosexual community via the bisexual and drug-users community. It is a disease that can take a decade or more to blossom to its full lethal potential, once someone is infected.

Unlike the flu or common cold, the ways this illness is spread relates directly to human actions-blood transfusion (now rare) or body fluid exposure, the use of injected drugs with unsterilized equipment, and sexual contact. Years ago, outbreaks of infectious diseases were met with prompt public and governmental action. In many cases, it still is.

But when it comes to AIDS/HIV, our response has been dismal. Out of fear of stigmatizing individuals who are exposed, usually because of unsafe conduct on their part, we respond to the diagnosis as if it were nothing more serious than a common cold.

This lack of prompt, appropriate response has allowed this disease to get completely out of hand. It is currently estimated that 40 million people worldwide have this disease and many of them do not know it!!!

When this disease was first identified, our officials followed procedure and began tracking down those who might have been cross-infected by exposure to the diagnosed patient. Privacy advocates screamed about this saying it violated the patient's right to privacy, completely ignoring the right of those exposed to a deadly disease to know about it and perhaps prevent them from exposing others unwittingly.

This change in policy has hamstrung our efforts to get control over this disease for the past twenty years, leading to ten or twenty times as many people being exposed and sentenced to death.

Understand, I am a strong supporter for the right to privacy. However, when the right to privacy endangers the lives of others, that is where the right to privacy ends.

This is especially important when we consider the prospects of a pandemic outbreak.

With the "bird" flu showing signs of nearing the avian/human infection crossing, we should be strengthening our disease monitoring, treatment, and reporting. This reporting cannot be just to state and federal authorities. It must include anyone who may have been exposed to the disease in question so that they can seek treatment or change their activities to limit or eliminate exposing others.

We held this position regarding Mr Tuberculosis. We already have plans to hold this position when faced with a global pandemic. We should and must take this position regarding our response to AIDS/HIV as well.

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