Jul
10
2007

Rights vs. precaution: Where to draw the line on communicable diseases

Pass it on: What rights do people with communicable diseases like tuberculosis -- shown in a microscopic enlargement above -- have when coming into contact with the public?
Pass it on: What rights do people with communicable diseases like tuberculosis -- shown in a microscopic enlargement above -- have when coming into contact with the public?
Are you like me, kind of in a fog about what really is the big deal about the guy with tuberculosis (TB) who recently flew on a trans-Atlantic flight?

Well, I’ve been digging around a little bit, and in my humble opinion, here’s why we do need to spend some time thinking about it.

Andrew Speaker flew to Europe this spring after having a diagnosis for an extensively drug-resistant form of TB. That information had been passed on to a federal agency, but it didn’t take any action to block his flight plans, or notify other passengers on the plane, that he would be sharing a long plane ride with them. Subsequently, it was discovered that he actually has a much milder form of TB.

But the question is, what role if any and how aggressively should government agencies be in notifying others that someone they’re in close contact has been diagnosed with a serious medical condition?

The Monday morning quarterbacking has been going on for weeks on the Speaker case and there is no clear-cut verdict.

Regular TB is treatable in about 95 percent of the cases. But special, stronger forms of TB, such as first thought with Speaker, are harder to reign in. His situation

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control say that a diagnosis for TB can take up to two months, plus even longer if it is a harsher form of TB, like first thought with Speaker. In his situation, once authorities found out he had been on a long, international flight, all of the passengers in the plane were notified and encouraged to be checked out for TB in themselves.

TB authorities say that was the proper way to handle the situation. And in light of the reduction of Speaker’s severity of TB, it might have been just right. But what if it had been the worst-case form of TB, which was thought at the time he took the flight. Should he have been allowed to fly at all?

And that’s just one form of communicable disease. Are there other conditions you’d like to know are present in fellow travelers, co-workers or other people you come in close proximity to? Do we all assume the risk of catching various medical problems when we live in a free society? Share your thoughts on this issue here with other Science Buzz readers.

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