By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor
WASHINGTON, Jan 14 (Reuters) - U.S. policy in preparing for a potential bird flu pandemic is veering dangerously toward a heavy-handed law-enforcement approach, the American Civil Liberties Union said on Monday.
The group, which advocates for individuals' legal rights based on the U.S. Constitution, said federal government pandemic plans were confusing and could emphasize a police and military approach to outbreaks of disease, instead of a more sensible public health approach.
"Rather than focusing on well-established measures for protecting the lives and health of Americans, policymakers have recently embraced an approach that views public health policy through the prism of national security and law enforcement," the ACLU report reads.
But the U.S. Health and Human Services Department (HHS) said the group had misunderstood the government's approach and said current plans already incorporate many of the ACLU's recommendations.
Infectious disease experts agree that a pandemic of some sort of influenza is inevitable, and most worries focus on H5N1 avian influenza. Although it mainly attacks birds, the virus has infected 349 people since 2003 and killed 216 of them.
A few mutations could turn it into a highly infectious disease for people and could kill millions globally.
Most countries are working to develop plans to deal with the potential consequences. The U.S. plans are available on Web sites such as pandemicflu.gov.
The ACLU said it was worried that the plan called for military and police involvement in enforcing a quarantine.
The ACLU experts said they were especially disturbed by an October executive order from President George W. Bush that directed HHS to establish a task force to plan for potential catastrophes like a terrorist attack, pandemic influenza or a natural disaster that would ensure full use of Department of Defense resources.
The Bush order does not specify what the Department of Defense role would be, but also mentions military medical research facilities that have played a role in health for decades.
"Pandemic planning today tends to emphasize mandatory vaccination and forced treatment," the ACLU's Tania Simoncelli told a news conference.
"It also means that sick people are being treated as criminals and enemies of the state rather than individuals in need of care."
The ACLU said plans should focus on how to help people stay home without losing pay, and instead of merely advising citizens to stockpile food, should provide for ways to help them do so.
HHS spokesman Bill Hall said the government plan stressed community and individual involvement.
"They have mischaracterized our planning efforts. They are confusing a containment attempt as our overall pandemic response once the virus has spread beyond our ability to stop it," Hall said in a telephone interview.
"Respecting civil liberties has been an important component of our pandemic planning."
He said many of the recommendations ACLU makes, such as voluntary vaccination and treatment, were in the plan. (Editing by Will Dunham and Philip Barbara)