SARS virus raises morality debate

The rapid spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that has led states to take emergency public health measures has raised serious legal and moral dilemmas. Even if isolation is acceptable to patients themselves, quarantine regulations that restrict the movements of unsuspecting healthy people is another issue, which raises questions such as who is to make the decision that these restrictions are required, how long they are to be imposed, and whether these people should be reimbursed for having their freedom restricted for the benefit of society as a whole, and if so, who should pay. Greece will have to find answers to all these questions, in view of the excesses observed in China, where a higher court ordered the execution of all those who violated quarantine. The debate began on May 13, at an initial meeting of experts from European Union member states in Luxembourg, where a questionnaire was drawn up referring to existing legislation and practical means of dealing with SARS, so that the issue could be raised at the next Health Ministers’ Council on June 2. According to reliable sources, the Health Ministry and the Center for the Control of Infectious Diseases (KEEL) are in favor of drawing up a new legislative framework, as there is a great deal of overlap of laws, with outdated provisions that do not reflect current concerns. «I believe that we should draft a modern legal framework that will cover not just emergency measures to protect people from infections diseases,» said Jenny Kremastinou, professor of public health who as coordinator of KEEL’s epidemiology committee took part in the Luxembourg meeting. «It should also deal with questions of insurance cover that might arise in cases such as these,» she proposed. Then there are issues such as those raised 20 years ago with the appearance of AIDS, and whether the protection of personal information would apply when cases of SARS are registered, and whether the media would be as discreet about a famous Greek who was suspected of having contracted SARS as it has been about the 22-year-old South African flight attendant. «The general principle that should be inspiring the measures the State is taking should be those that the European Court of Human Rights has often established as a measure of the permissible restrictions of human rights; the principle of proportionality,» said Georgios Koumantos, professor of family law and president of the National Bioethics Committee. «This means that a state can take any measures to protect public health that are shown necessary in order to prevent a greater evil. If someone violates the permissible limits because of a mistaken judgment, that can only be evaluated after the event,» he added.

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