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article imageOp-Ed: Maine wants to limit what we know about disease outbreaks

By Karen Graham     Jul 24, 2016 in Food
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is proposing a change in the state regulation that would make it easier for the agency to withhold information from the public concerning disease outbreaks.
Joe Lawlor of the Portland Press Herald reported the story on July 21, 2016, yet it has not been picked up by major media sites. But the proposed change in the regulations in Maine has an impact on everyone, regardless of which state you live in.
Because a rule or regulation is the same as a law, in this case, Maine's CDC wants to make sure it doesn't have to let the public know everything about a disease outbreak, no matter if it's a communicable disease outbreak like measles or chicken pox or a food-borne illness outbreak linked to a particular restaurant.
5 year old boy with chicken pox.
5 year old boy with chicken pox.
By JonnyMccullagh
Basically, as far as Maine's CDC goes, it is its interpretation of the law, and when contacted last week, CDC spokesman John Martins said the agency does not comment on pending rule changes.
The proposed change comes a year after the Portland Press Herald filed a lawsuit in July 2015. The Maine CDC, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services had denied the newspaper’s request for information about chicken pox outbreaks at three schools and a day-care facility during the 2014-15 school year.
Just so you know, in the state of Maine, an outbreak is defined as "a location where there are three or more cases of an infectious disease."
It took until October 2, 2015, when a court settlement resulted in the Maine Attorney General’s Office handing over the records. “The state attorney general’s office agreed with us that this was, in fact, a public record. We wanted to set a precedent that this data ought to be provided,” said Sigmund Schutz, the Press Herald’s attorney on October 2.
The public's right to know
As far as this particular situation goes, it was all about a chicken pox outbreak. Yes, the schools and day care center sent letters home to the parents of the children attending the facilities. But for childless couples, including the elderly, and immunocompromised people living in the vicinity of the schools, the risks to their health was great, and they didn't know about the outbreak.
Just knowing where an outbreak has happened can be important because the vulnerable individual can then avoid places where the disease had spread, contended the newspaper. And Schutz said simply letting the public know where outbreaks have occurred would not identify patients, as the DHHS had asserted.
As far as the proposed rule goes, Schutz says, if adopted, the rule would be in conflict with state open records laws, which do not give the agency latitude to deny requests based on unlikely scenarios that an individual could be identified.
Balancing Transparency and Integrity
People today want to know about communicable disease and food-borne illness outbreaks. This is part of a national trend in demanding openness and transparency in our government, and this is totally needed, for more reasons than any one of us can count.
This is one area where social media also plays a positive role in getting information out to the public. People are more inclined to read posts about disease outbreaks on the Internet. But where government health agencies and this includes those at the state and federal levels, say they issue public alerts when there’s an immediate health risk, a problem arises.
Social media plays an important role in letting the public know about communicable diseases and food...
Social media plays an important role in letting the public know about communicable diseases and food-borne illness outbreaks.
Regulations, laws, and rules determine what is to be considered an "immediate health risk." Are we talking about a measles outbreak or a local restaurant with an employee that has tested positive for hepatitis? I think the employee with hepatitis is just as important a health risk to the public as five children with measles.
And this is where we may end up having a problem if the proposed Maine rule goes through and becomes accepted as the new regulation. Yes, this is just in Maine, but everyone knows what could happen. As the old saying goes, "What's good for the goose is good for the gander."
All of us must speak out and let health agencies know that we do need to know when and where any disease outbreaks occur. This is for our protection and the safety of our families, but more importantly, it is our right to know.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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