Washington — U.S. President Bush, stirring debate on the possibility of a bird flu pandemic, on Wednesday suggested dispatching American troops to enforce quarantines in any areas with outbreaks of the virus.
Mr. Bush asserted aggressive action could be needed to prevent a potentially crippling U.S. outbreak of a bird flu strain that is sweeping through Asian poultry and causing experts to fear it could become the next deadly pandemic. Citing concern that state and local authorities might be unable to contain and deal with such an outbreak, Mr. Bush asked Congress to give him the authority to call in the military.
The president has already indicated he wants to give the armed forces the lead responsibility for conducting search-and-rescue operations and sending in supplies after massive natural disasters and terrorist attacks - a notion that could require a change in law and that even some in the Pentagon have reacted to skeptically. The idea raised the startling-to-some image of soldiers cordoning off communities hit by disease.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, associate dean of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and director of its National Center for Disaster Preparedness, called the president's suggestion an "extraordinarily draconian measure" that would be unnecessary if the nation had built the capability for rapid vaccine production, ensured a large supply of anti-virals like Tamiflu, and not allowed the degradation of the public health system.
"The translation of this is martial law in the United States," Redlener said.