Quarantine’s ability to slow bird flu debated

Fifty people attended the debate and discussion Oct. 27 in the Consortium Library focusing on what role the United Nations should play and what needs to be done to prevent casualties.

UAA’s debate team presented a debate regarding whether empowering the World Heath Organization in the event of a pandemic of the H5N1 virus is a necessary step.

Freshman Ben Ferguson, arguing for the proposition, said the government’s purpose has always been to protect its citizens, and due to this responsibility, leaders including WHO, are obligated to use all available options to do so.

“There is no other organization on the world stage that can do this more effectively,” Ferguson said. “The important point to note is that when we create a quarantine, it will slow the rate of infection.”

Junior Michael Rose, opposing empowerment of the WHO, argued that a quarantine would not solve the dilemma and the WHO may not in fact be capable of containing an outbreak.

“The WHO isn’t necessarily an organization that has the infrastructure to be able to adapt to this type of policy,” Rose said. “The WHO has an annual budget of about $400 million. Now, to put that into perspective, New York City’s Health Department has an annual budget of $1.2 billion.”

Rose said a key issue with the H5N1 virus is the significant disagreement within the scientific community as to whether the virus will gain the ability to spread readily between people.

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“The reason this is different is because the H5N1 virus doesn’t go from human to human, and the quarantines they set up are quarantines against human travel, not necessarily quarantines against bird travel,” he said.

Junior Tom Lassen, arguing to empower the WHO, said proponents of quarantine do not desire one now, but only if and when a pandemic breaks out. A quarantine would buy time to produce and distribute medications and vaccines to people who were in need of it.

“Saving people’s lives, preventing the expansion of this pandemic, is much more important,” he said. “We need to have time to make sure that we can actually create enough Tamiflu that we can inoculate everyone, as opposed to just the rich nations.”

Senior Rose Helens-Hart, journalism and public communications major, argued a quarantine would be ineffective at preventing the spread of a pandemic, and it would only serve to condemn those in the affected area to death.

“If it were from a person-to-person basis, you’re still going to see it spreading throughout countries, because borders aren’t walls,” Helens-Hart said.

When people think the government is doing everything it can, they cease to be concerned about the real issue. A quarantine will not stop the spread of the virus, and people take fewer precautions against the threat, she said.

Panel member Douglas Causey, the vice provost of Research and Grant Studies, stressed the importance of advanced planning.

“Alaska is one of the places where we had flu epidemics so severe that entire villages and towns, the people in them were completely killed,” Causey said. “These were isolated towns; they were already quarantined.”

Causey said research on vaccines and medicines is where the emphasis should be, and he thought quarantines were of limited effectiveness in preventing the spread of a pandemic.

“What’s the best way to prevent this? It’s the same for almost any virus including the cold, and your mom was right: wash your hands,” Causey said.

Larry Weiss, retired research professor emeritus of public health, said quarantines should be the last line of defense, not the first in battling a pandemic.

“If we’re seriously talking about a quarantine as our primary line of defense, we’ve already lost this war,” he said. “The WHO has helped stamp out a number of very critical diseases, such as smallpox, without worldwide quarantines, so it’s quite possible to take other approaches that are successful.”

Thomas Buller, philosophy department chair and associate professor, said when it comes down to it, the response will be nothing more than crunching numbers to see which approach will best serve the most people.

There are only 2.3 million doses of Tamiflu in the government’s stockpile, he said, which is far less than what would be required to treat all affected Americans.

“By the time that we have enough doses even for this country, the game will be over,” Buller said.

Diddy Hitchins, a professor of political science and director of International North Pacific Studies, said Hurricane Katrina should have alerted people to the necessity of early planning in dealing with a disaster, and it emphasized the fact that the United States is not immune to major disasters.

“The U.N. is a membership organization; it is an organization that cannot impose anything on anyone,” she said.

However, she added that the U.N. should not be overlooked as one option to help aid people in a time of crisis.

The forum was part of a national project, The People Speak, which is a nonprofit organization that encourages public discourse about current issues.