• Should Public Health Trump Private Rights?

    Thursday 22nd January 2004 - 10:45am - 12:00pm

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  • Should Public Health Trump Private Rights?


    Annual Meeting 2004

    Moderator Jonathan Zittrain, Faculty Co Director and Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies, The Berkman Center for Internet & Society, USA, set the scene: the phone rings in the office of a European newspaper editor. The caller says he is preparing an attack using biological agents in New Helsinki, Finland. What would you do if you were the editor, or a Member of Parliament in Finland who was notified of the threat?

    The panellists, all in positions where this scenario is taken seriously, shared their responses. Frederick Kempe, Editor and Associate Publisher, The Wall Street Journal Europe, Belgium, said he received two specific threats last year. He took both seriously although nothing developed from the calls. First, Kempe would call local authorities and the US security office at the US Embassy and give them as much information as possible. Since 11 September he has kept a list of names of whom to call and the steps to take. The overriding principle, he says, is to remember to act in the public's interest, because safety is a top priority.

    Eva Biaudet, Member of Parliament of Finland, and a Global Leader for Tomorrow 2001, stressed that any threatening call where biological agents are involved must be taken seriously, and all threats have to be investigated. She also noted she knows the story would appear in a newspaper and people would be scared. "So it is important to project that I'm on top of the situation," she said. Biaudet said she would meet with government officials and then call a press conference where she would be calm but open about the threat. Kempe added that just as soon as the press conference had been called, he would think that something specific had been discovered and would aggressively follow the story. It was not just for a scoop, but to get the facts out fully to the public. In the real world, he says, the lack of knowledge can be more dangerous than correct knowledge.

    "I get calls like this every day," observed Laurie Garrett, Writer, Science and Medical, Newsday, USA. While 99.9% of the threats are groundless, in today's world they all have to be followed. Garrett emphasized that where disease is involved, diagnosis sometimes can't be confirmed for weeks. But if action is not taken immediately, the result could be disastrous. She pointed to avian flu, which has a mortality rate of 85% and to the outbreak of SARS in China, which spread quickly and resulted in quarantines in Asia and in Toronto. "If it's respiratory, it could go global," she said, adding that SARS spread to 30 countries in six weeks. Two pieces of information are critical, she reported: "Is it avian? Is it transmissible from human to human?" Avian flu is transmitted from animal to human, SARS from human to human. Both not only impacted whole populations; they affected the economy. SARS cost the global economy US$ 30 billion, Garrett said, because airports were closed, trade was interrupted and people were quarantined.

    Alan W. Whiteside, Director, Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division (HEARD), University of Natal, South Africa, had a slightly different perspective: he believes the developed world is preoccupied with bioterrorism, while the developing world is concerned with communicable diseases. What the press needs, he said, is better knowledge about the transmission of disease, biology and epidemiology. Most of all, it should stop letting sub editors write the headlines that cause hysteria.

    Ruth R. Faden, Executive Director, The Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute, Johns Hopkins University, USA, said contact tracing, finding everyone who has had contact with the affected person, is vital in an emergency involving disease. It is also important to notify the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control to put out a travel advisory and set up a global network with medical and government experts, she said. Garrett added that if avian flu had reached Nairobi or Johannesburg, where HIV has made the population especially vulnerable, it would have had horrendous consequences. Faden raised the issue of the balance of civil liberties and public health. Don't interfere with civil liberties unless you can do some good, she cautioned. As medical facts change, the balance between civil liberties and public health may shift. Compulsory isolation or vaccination are subjects to be considered carefully. If, possible, before a crisis.

    Related Links

    Annual Meeting Global Health Initiative

Moderated by

  • Jonathan Zittrain Jonathan Zittrain
    Professor of Law and Professor of Computer Science, Harvard University, USA

    BSc in Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence, Yale; MPA, JD, Harvard. 1986-90, Editorial Col...


  • Laurie A. Garrett Laurie A. Garrett
    Senior Fellow for Global Health, Council on Foreign Relations, USA

    Degree (Hons) in Biology, University of California; studies at Department of Bacteriology and Immuno...

  • Frederick Kempe Frederick Kempe
    President and Chief Executive Officer, The Atlantic Council, USA

    Graduate, University of Utah; Master's degree, Columbia University. Member of the Board, American In...