Identifying the TB Patient

tb-patient2.jpgThe other day, I blogged about the TB patient who flew to Europe and back with the knowledge that he had a rare form of TB. The media had been reporting on the case for a while, and the man’s name was not identified until a day or two ago, when a number of stories began including his full name and photograph [one photo is included in this post; I have obscured his face], as well as the name and photographs of the woman he married (including photos from his wedding).

Although I find the man’s conduct to be irresponsible, I don’t think it was appropriate to identify him. I bet that revealing his name will result in threats and attempts at vigilantism, possibly putting him and his family at risk of harm. It will also severely hurt his reputation and perhaps even his career. Some might say that he deserves such consequences, but I believe that the most appropriate sanctions are legal, not extra-legal. I have blogged extensively about my thoughts about such community mob “justice” here.

Was it appropriate for the media to publish his name and photograph? The name and photograph of his wife? I am curious about how his name got leaked. If one of his physicians released it, or if a government official at the CDC or elsewhere released it, he might have a cause of action for breach of confidentiality or public disclosure of private facts.

UPDATE: Dissent (a commenter to my post) points to an AP story that provides an answer to how the man’s identity was revealed. According to the AP:

The tuberculosis patient under the first federal quarantine since 1963 is a 31-year-old personal injury attorney who practices law with his father in Atlanta, a federal law enforcement official said Thursday.

The official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to talk about the case, identified the patient as [name]. A medical official in Atlanta also confirmed the patient’s name on condition of anonymity.

Barring facts I’m unaware of, such a disclosure by the government official seems improper and probably illegal. It might well be a violation of the TB patient’s constitutional right to information privacy. The confirmation of the patient’s identity by the medical offical in Atlanta would be a breach of confidentiality. It is surprising that these individuals disclosed the man’s name. They clearly knew better, as the federal official indicated he wasn’t supposed to speak about the case and the medical official requested anonymity. This strikes me as a willful disregard for the law, and I hope that these officials will be punished, let alone successfully sued by the TB patient.

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4 Responses

  1. Dissent says:

    When the Associated Press story named him, they cited two “anonymous” sources. They identified one as “federal law enforcement official” and the other as “medical official in Atlanta.” That was the first source I saw for his name.

    I was not happy that his name was revealed that way, and blogged about it on my site, asking what you are now asking, because I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a CDC employee who was the second source.

    As to whether the media should have then published it, I would guess that they would argue yes, of course, because of public interest in the story. My concern was whether they ever should have been given his name by people involved in the case.

  2. jps says:

    I think this is one of the problems of the internet age. Let’s say the CDC only released the following: Man who had travelled to Greece from Atlanta for his wedding, then travelled to Italy afterwards for a honeymoon- with dates. This wouldn’t be an improper breach of confidentilaity (sure, maybe they didnt need the wedding/honeymoon stuff), becasue we need to know where/when this guy was. Unfortunately, he had a wedding announcement in one of the Atlanta papers that described his travel plans. A little digging by any decent journalist, and you could have figured it out….

  3. Dave! says:

    I don’t think it was right for a federal official or a medical official to release his name. However, I think it’s naive to assume his name would not have come out. Eventually, an airline employee, another passenger (who files a lawsuit) etc. would have leaked it.

    I would not encourage or endorse vigilantism, however, I do think there needs to be some serious legal consequences for this irresponsible jerk.

  4. Anon Prof says:

    More updating here:

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070604/ap_on_re_us/tuberculosis_infection;_ylt=Apsfh8l8srpcArhqZ.ucRJpH2ocA

    I agree with the other commenters here; perhaps irresponsible to release his name, but if the TB patient is able to sue and recover vis-a-vis the government, I would *hope* anything he recovers would be a drop in the bucket compared to the liability he faces for exposing all of those innocent people to TB.

    As for his parents being “in hell,” imagine how this man’s irresponsible behavior impacted those who sat next to him on the flight? The coincidence of the father-in-law being a CDC official is a little odd, as is their protestation that they couldn’t afford a private jet (if he’s that concerned about his health, and can afford a wedding in Europe, one takes a loan).

    Completely disgusting behavior on the patient’s part, makes lawyers look terrible, and hopefully will result in some serious bar discipline.