Professor: ‘Quarantine is not a panacea’

«I am happy the quarantine is over,» a Hong Kong resident told television reporters a few days ago. «I cannot say the government did not look after us, but we felt very insecure.» Professor Dimitris Trichopoulos of Athens University’s School of Epidemiology and of Harvard is concerned at the facility with which sacrifices are demanded of other people even when the benefits are doubtful. «Healthy people who have come into contact with patients are quarantined out of fear that they will become sources of further infection. It is a measure that has a collective logic, but is not a panacea.» Trichopoulos believes that isolating people who have been in contact with a patient and, therefore, could themselves have become infected, in fact exposes them to an even greater danger of infection by attempting to protect society as a whole. «It is by no means certain that this is an effective measure. It depends on the kind of epidemic and the percentage of healthy carriers,» he said. The professor suggests awarding compensation to those subjected to quarantine although, as he points out, financial rewards cannot compensate for the total cost of social isolation and psychological oppression. «I do not disagree with the need to protect society as a whole. However, there has to be a balance between the need to protect the population and respect for human rights. A doctor’s first thought should be to serve the interests of the specific patient. Only then should he or she worry about others. The balance between these two obligations presupposes deep knowledge and requires guidance from society. Everyone should decide what to do in the event of such threats. Are we ready to say, generally, that those suffering from an infectious disease should be isolated? If the patient is infectious for two years, what then? Should someone be isolated for such a long period of time? That would lead to the same approach as took place with leper colonies. This is where experienced epidemiologists have to see the balance between benefit, cost and risk. I am astounded at the news that a Supreme Council for Public Health, provided for in the Health Ministry’s new draft law, does not include even one epidemiologist. There are many young doctors in this field in Greece who would be suitable for the job. They could make a great contribution.» For reasons of principle, the humanitarian organization Doctors without Borders plays no part in the State’s plans with regard to organized health systems. «Our position will be decided upon after evaluating the State’s reflexes in dealing with individual cases and, of course, its handling of them, as well as the way it communicates with the public. Any preventive measures the government proposes should be governed by its sense of responsibility for public health and guaranteeing human rights. People who are ill should always be dealt with as human beings, with dignity, so that not only their physical but their psychological welfare is safeguarded,» said Antypas Zanetos, the group’s head of missions. No ‘leper colonies’ «Dealing with the SARS virus will be quite different from dealing with AIDS, from the point of view of public health and human rights,» according to Haris Politis, legal adviser and head of KEEL’s ethics department. «Apart from its historical importance, SARS creates particular legal problems for all of us who are committed to safeguarding not only public health but the human and individual rights of both healthy people and those who have been infected. We will do everything possible to avoid another Spinalonga [an island that was once a leper colony]. It is our duty to do whatever we can to protect public health with the fewest infringements of human rights and personal freedoms. It is our duty to prevent discrimination and to safeguard patient confidentiality. We have to both respect patients and protect the healthy,» he said.