Sunday, October 23, 2005

Quarantine 2

A parrot infected with H5N1 dies in quarantine (BBC news). Does this mean that quarantine works, or at least has worked in this instance, to protect us from bird flu?

In a contrasting example, sniffer dogs, returning to the UK from earthquake duty in Algeria (BBC News) and Kashmir (Reuters), are forced to undergo quarantine (making them unavailable for further duties for six months, including protection against terrorism). Does this mean that quarantine is stupid and inflexible? Is this yet another example of interference (poor interoperability) between different security systems?

Even in this case there is a possible justification for quarantine, since it seems reasonable to suppose that a dog operating in a crisis zone such as Kashmir or New Orleans might be at greater risk of disease. The dog is doing dangerous work, and is highly likely to receive scratches and other minor injuries through which germs can enter. And there are more germs, as well as stray dogs, rats and other threats.

Rescue dogs are in a similar position to human medical staff - they are more likely to catch things. Of course they have all the possible jabs, but is that enough? And of course they have plenty of opportunity to transmit things to people who are already weak and are therefore particularly vulnerable to infection. Do you want to be bitten by the dog that pulls you from the rubble?

So there is a complicated risk trade-off calculation going on here. Who is going to do this risk calculation? The existing systems and regulations may produce absurd results, but what is the alternative? The Home Secretary overturns the regulations?!?

Meanwhile, what about young men with strong religious beliefs, who go to foreign countries to provide earthquake assistance. The UK security forces will find it hard to work out which ones have had contact with dangerous influences, and will therefore be obliged to put all of them into some kind of virtual quarantine (e.g. close surveillance) on their return.

How effective, efficient and fair is any given security mechanism, and what are the unwanted side-effects?

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