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Australian Bill proposes 'stormtroopers' to enforce health laws

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  • Australian Bill proposes 'stormtroopers' to enforce health laws

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    • Miles Kemp
    • From: <cite> The Advertiser </cite>
    • March 13, 2010 12:01AM<!-- // .story-header-tools -->

    <!-- .story-header --> <!-- google_ad_section_start(name=story_introduction, weight=high) --> HEALTH officials in gas masks bashing through front doors is the kind of scenario usually reserved for sci-fi movies. <!-- google_ad_section_end(name=story_introduction) -->

    <!-- // .story-intro --> <!-- google_ad_section_start(name=story_body, weight=high) --> But it is now a reality that health planners warn the public must prepare for as the state confronts a bewildering array of modern public health issues.
    The proposed South Australian Public Health Bill, with its new tough stand against everything from the obesity epidemic to swine flu, sent shockwaves through the public health sector when released late last year. Experts now have had the chance to respond to the draconian measures, and some warn individual rights are being overlooked.
    The 59 responses released by the Health Department this week show the plan has received a mixed reaction from health professionals and those who must implement the new measures. Many concerns will make their way into the final legislation.<!-- // .story-sidebar -->
    The Bill, which reviews the outdated 1987 Act and has been in the pipeline since 2000, includes ideas as diverse as using public transport to stop obesity and locking up people to stop a disease outbreak.
    When the current Act was written, attempts to stop the spread of AIDS were limited to TV commercials, the obesity epidemic was only being revealed in scientific journals and many of the threats were unknown or little known. Think meningococcal, swine flu, bird flu, SARS, terrorist anthrax attacks or mad cow disease.
    Desperate times require desperate measures, advocates argue. The gas-masked official storming through your front door would be the new all-powerful Chief Public Health Officer, or one of his deputies, and for this scenario to occur, you would have to pose an extreme threat to the health of others.
    The Bill says: "For example, they can ask questions, inspect articles or substances found in a premise or vehicle, remove samples, require papers, books or specifications to be produced, examine, copy or take extracts, and so on. They may forcibly enter any premises or vehicles if they have a magistrate's warrant."
    The unelected Chief Public Health Officer even can step in and take over the powers of a democratically elected council as they relate to the public health issue at hand - for example, the collection of waste.
    Prevention of public health disasters is another focus of the changes.
    Local councils are expected to bear the brunt of the new workload, but not without warnings that some will not cope and will need more funding.
    Modernising the haphazard immunisation strategy - now provided by doctors, councils and the state - is the best example.
    The State Government will expect councils to take over running of the scheme. In response to that proposal, the Flinders Ranges Council wants to know how its handful of staff will cope. Its health officer is shared with three other councils.
    "The Flinders Ranges Council believes this is merely another cost-shifting exercise on behalf of the State Government," chief executive officer Colin Davies wrote in his submission, echoing the view of numerous council complaints.
    The Heart Foundation's Kirsten Potoczky was one of many to point out the limitations councils may have in influencing preventable health epidemics such as obesity.
    The South Australian Council of Social Service is one of many organisations that finds the increased powers of detention too extreme.
    "SACOSS shares the concerns of member organisations that the powers of authorised officers are too broad and thus problematic," senior policy analyst Tom Stead warns.
    Anti-AIDS lobby groups also have concerns about the power of the CPHO, which includes the right to order HIV-testing of people feared to be a public health risk.
    Pending the state election outcome, the Bill could be debated in Parliament by mid-year.