February 24, 2003
In the last century, public health measures such as antibiotics, sanitation and vaccination helped wipe out many infectious diseases, adding 25 years to life expectancy in industrialized countries. Despite modern advances in medicine, many diseases are increasing among our citizens. Today’s health challenges include an epidemic of chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes, unexplained clusters of cancer, the resurgence of many infectious diseases, and an increase in behavioral and learning problems.The considerable evidence that many of these threats may be linked to factors in the environment, and therefore might be preventable, merits further examination.
Currently there is no nationally coordinated database of non-infectious diseases and no routine investigation of potentially associated environmental factors. The results of research studies that have been completed in this field are not easily accessible. Tracking where and when diseases occur and investigating their possible links to environmental factors are first steps to preventing such diseases in the future. A nationwide health tracking network should help provide communities and health officials with the information they need to help prevent these deadly diseases.
Such a national database would necessarily contain personal information and therefore raise the specter of jeopardizing individuals’ rights to privacy. Although modern techniques for handling and protecting the contents of large databases can render the risk of compromising personal privacy very small, they cannot eliminate it entirely. The benefits of recording such information must be carefully weighed against the risks.
In Jewish tradition, the moral obligation to take action to save lives whenever possible is a supreme value. This includes preventing loss of life whenever possible, and erring on the side of caution in setting health policy.
Therefore, the JCPA urges Congress to create a Nationwide Health Tracking Network to be housed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to give the Centers the authority necessary to establish a comprehensive, national repository of information about the incidence of disease. All feasible actions to ensure that personal health information is kept strictly confidential must be required by law and their implementation carefully monitored. Only aggregate information should be made available to individuals, communities and researchers. The Centers must also be given the mandate and necessary funds to conduct investigations of possible connections between diseases and environmental factors.