ATLANTA (AP) — Federal health officials are seeking to update quarantine regulations, hoping changes such as easier access to airline passenger lists could better protect Americans from foreign infectious diseases, including bird flu.
The proposed changes, announced yesterday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, include easier CDC access to airline and ship passenger lists, a clearer appeals process for people subjected to quarantines, and explicit authority to offer vaccinations and medical treatment to quarantined people.
The changes are part of a multi-pronged attempt to guard against infectious agents from abroad. In the past 1 years, the CDC also has increased the number of quarantine stations at airports, ship ports and land-border crossings from eight to 18.
Concerns about a deadly bird flu immigrating from Asia are among the motivators for the change, said Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the CDC’s division of global migration and quarantine. Health officials fear the form of bird flu could spark a major epidemic if it mutates into a form easily passed from human to human.
CDC officials say federal quarantine and contact-tracing regulations are antiquated. This is the first substantial overhaul of such regulations in at least 25 years, they said.
The need for new regulations was made clear during international outbreaks of the SARS virus in 2003, when public health officials had difficulty obtaining passenger information from airlines to trace the contacts of people who had been infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome, Dr. Cetron said.
“SARS put it really front and center where the gaps were,” he said.
One proposal would require airlines and cruise lines to maintain passenger and crew lists and submit them electronically to CDC upon request. The measure could cost as much as $108 million a year for airlines and $800,000 for cruise lines, one government estimate showed.
However, those figures assume a dramatic revamping of electronic record-keeping, which may not be necessary, Dr. Cetron said.
Another proposal would set forth the legal rights of a person placed under quarantine. Some legal scholars said such guidelines have been missing from federal law, and their absence could lead to a legal tangle that might stall government quarantine actions during an outbreak.
“It could mean uncertainty and delay while federal powers were litigated during an emergency,” said Lawrence Gostin, a public health law specialist at Georgetown University.
The rules were being published in the Federal Register and will be open for public comment for 60 days. CDC officials say they hope to make the regulations final by spring.