Disease-related Do Not Fly list?

This is not strictly MRSA-related, but it is so striking it’s worth posting on. This morning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US public health agency, revealed in its weekly bulletin that it has begun maintaining a “Do Not Board” list for people who are thought to be a communicable-disease risk to others.

In slightly more than a year, 33 people have been refused transportation because of the list, which is operated in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security.

The CDC began operating the list in June 2007, shortly after tuberculosis patient Andrew Speaker flew to Europe and back despite requests by public-health authorities that he not fly; he returned via Canada, driving into the United States to evade an alert given to airlines to locate him. At the time, Speaker was thought to have extensively drug-resistant (XDR) TB, an extremely dangerous form of the disease. Later, his doctors asserted and the CDC agreed that his TB was multi-drug resistant (MDR) — still dangerous, but nowhere near as dangerous as the almost-untreatable XDR form.

Patients’ names can be placed on the list by several entities though all requests are reviewed, the CDC says:

state or local public health officials contact the CDC Quarantine Station for their region†; health-care providers make requests by contacting their state or local public health departments, and foreign and U.S. government agencies contact the Director’s Emergency Operations Center (DEOC) at CDC in Atlanta.
To include someone on the list, CDC must determine that the person 1) likely is contagious with a communicable disease that would constitute a serious public health threat should the person be permitted to board a flight; 2) is unaware of or likely to be nonadherent with public health recommendations, including treatment; and 3) likely will attempt to board a commercial aircraft.
Once a person is placed on the list, airlines are instructed not to issue a boarding pass to the person for any commercial domestic flight or for any commercial international flight arriving in or departing from the United States. (MMWR 57(37);1009-1012)

An important point here is the phrase “would constitute a serious public health threat.” Under US law (42 USC 264), most public health functions belong to the states, but the federal government is empowered to detain and isolate or quarantine people known or suspected to have a small list of communicable diseases: cholera, diphtheria, infectious tuberculosis, plague, smallpox, yellow fever, viral hemorrhagic fevers (such as Ebola), SARS, and novel strains of flu. The Do Not Board list, however, reaches beyond that list, according to the CDC bulletin:

The public health DNB list is not limited to those communicable diseases for which the federal government can legally impose isolation and quarantine; the list can be used for other communicable diseases that would pose a serious health threat to air travelers. However, to date, the list has only been used for persons with suspected or confirmed pulmonary TB, which is transmitted via the respiratory route and which has had transmission documented during commercial air travel.

Detecting and protecting against disease threats to the US is well within the CDC’s mandate. Still, this raises a huge list of questions, from how medical privacy is maintained when a patient’s name is so widely circulated, to whether healthy people with similar names will be mistaken for sick ones, to how easily people get off the list once they are deemed well.

The CDC says that, of the 33 people placed on the list in the past 15 months, 18 already have been removed. But the persistent problems with the original No-Fly list — snagging air marshals and toddlers and causing passengers to change their names — suggests that this may not be as easy to manage as the CDC thinks. It would be good to hear more about what safeguards they propose — or whether they have left that part of the issue to be handled by DHS.

Maryn

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