Quarantine

With ten dead in Iraq today and five Britons kidnapped, I was looking for some good news to write about. I didn’t find it. And in what seems like a page out of a science-fiction novel, I found this: U.S. Isolates Traveler Infected with Super-TB.

The United States has isolated a man who may have exposed fellow passengers on two transatlantic flights to a strain of tuberculosis that is extremely hard to treat, officials said on Tuesday.

It was the first time the federal government has issued such an isolation order since at least 1963, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said authorities were trying to notify passengers who traveled aboard Air France 385 from Atlanta to Paris on May 13 and back to the United States from Prague on Czech Air Flight 0104 on May 24.

It caught my attention immediately because while flipping channels this weekend, I happened upon the tv premiere of the movie Pandemic on the Hallmark Channel. It was about the quarantining of passengers arriving at LAX from Australia after a young man died en route. They suspected he had bird flu, but whatever he had, there was no vaccine.

The cast was unusual: Faye Dunaway as Governor of California, Eric Roberts as Mayor of Los Angeles.

Somewhat predictably, one selfish passenger had business he thought so important he managed to sneak out in a baggage truck and proceed to infect others in the city. A drug kingpin being extradited back to America to face the death penalty is also on board the flight and escapes. He mysteriously doesn’t get the disease . Yet he kidnaps someone from the Center for Disease Control to find out what the closest vaccine is and manages to hijack the trucks bringing it into LA. Then (of course) he sells the vaccine on the streets as if it were heroin. Did I mention the redneck who thinks the quarrantine is a Government plot to subvert the Constitution and decides with his buddies to engage in a little vigiliantism? Or the crooked criminal defense lawyer or the FBI agent not afraid to pull a Jack Bauer?

Despite the highly implausible plot and cast of characters, the film raises real questions about the role of Government in the event of a threat of mass disease. As I watched, I tried to envision the progression of circumstances in real life: a passenger infected with a deadly contagious disease for which there is no cure or vaccine, a quarantine of an entire flight, a city’s population panicking, rioting and looting to get whatever supplies are available, martial law…and then what?

Today it’s just one flight and one passenger. But how many did he infect before he “voluntarily entered a medical isolation facility in New York City?” What if you had been next to him and the Government now knocks on your door to involuntarily commit you to an isolation facility for testing? Are quarantines the answer? Is there another way?

And the corollary: Is our Government doing enough and the right kinds of things to protect us from biological threats?

Pandemic will air again this weekend.