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Public health is a global matter

Chicago public health attorney works to establish international health agencies' network          Send a link to a friend

[June 23, 2007]  Don't believe that a sick person in the Czech Republic couldn't have a direct effect on the health of your family in the United States, warned Judith Munson, adjunct professor of The John Marshall Law School.

Munson has taken the first step in developing a network that will ensure health experts can work together in the future to protect the public from catastrophic infections. As executive director of The International Collaborative for Public Health Emergency Preparedness, Munson, of Chicago, is sharing her knowledge and experiences with health officials in the European Union and hopes to expand the collaborative globally.

"It's no longer just bioterrorism," said Munson, who worked for the Centers for Disease Control's newly established Public Health Law Program after the anthrax attacks of 2001. "It's natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina and tsunamis) that need attention. Also, think about SARS (a viral respiratory illness). Think about polonium 210 (a radioactive material believed to have killed ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London)."

Munson's first meeting of The International Collaborative for Public Health Emergency Preparedness in Prague, Czech Republic, in March, was jointly hosted by The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and Charles University in the Czech Republic.

Two months later, the Czech Republic was on the world stage because Andrew Speaker, the Georgia lawyer infected with a communicable strain of tuberculosis, flew from the Czech Republic to Canada in May 2007 so that he could enter the United States "under the radar."

Speaker says he knew he had tuberculosis, but none of his doctors forbade him from leaving. In mid-May, while traveling in Italy, he was notified by CDC that he had a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis. CDC did nothing to help him or limit his travel because an agency official said CDC didn't believe it had any legal jurisdiction to do that.

The Speaker case, Munson argues, is a perfect example of why it is important for public health agencies and governments to work together to protect the population.

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"Law and public health have to work together or there's no preparedness," she stresses.

The collaborative's first meeting had representatives from the World Health Organization, the European Union and the United States. Major addresses were delivered by Demetris Vryonides, head of the Legal Unit of the European Union's Commission on Health and Consumer Protection in Brussels; Roman Prymula, dean of the Czech University of Defense and Czech delegate to the management board of the European Center for Disease Control; and Alena Petrakova, from the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

The participants emphasized that lawyers, as well as professional public health experts, need to be involved in the planning for public health emergencies because of the effect the plans can have on the legal rights and responsibilities of every citizen, regardless of their nationality.

The consensus from the conference was that national and even continental efforts alone would be ineffective in combating a worldwide epidemic. Participants agreed that the question was not whether, but when a "major" flu pandemic would again occur.

The program was the first step in Munson's work on cross-border initiatives in public health.

"I believe we can reduce tragedies by improving awareness and communications between countries," she said.

Munson most recently was a guest presenter at the Great Lakes Border Initiative Conference on Preparedness at Niagara Falls in June.

[Text from file received from The John Marshall Law School]

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