What is a Quarantine?
An important distinction needs to be made between quarantine and isolation. Isolation is to take people who are infectious and isolate them to prevent them from spreading the disease. Isolation can be mandatory or voluntary. Historically, Ebola has had mandatory isolation but for the most part, patients and families were willingly isolated to prevent the spread of the disease to others. Isolation is very good practice for a disease like Ebola.
A quarantine is more aggressive. Quarantines are where a population of healthy people are isolated because they might become infectious. They are usually involuntary because no one wants to be locked in with infectious people. It is usually accompanied by aggressive state actions to enfoce the quarantine.
When would a Quarantine make sense?
The justification for a quarantine requires two elements. First, the illness must be infectious. It would make no sense to quarantine cancer patients because they can’t transmit their disease. In the epidemiology community, the measure of infectivity is the Basic Reproduction Number or R-Naught (written as R0). It is the number of people you would expect, on average, to get an illness from an infectious person. Influenza has an R0 of 2-3, smallpox 5-7, measles is 12-18. The 2014 Ebola outbreak has an R0 of about 1.7 in West Africa. In the US, it is much lower with only two transmissions from the seven patients who have been treated.
The second factor is the severity of the illness. Ebola, of course, is one of the deadlier illnesses out there, so its severity is certainly enough that isolation and quarantine are worth considering.
Both factors are important. Rabies and Mad Cow disease, which are nearly %100 fatal, do not require a quarantine because they are relatively difficult to transmit. Chicken Pox may be very infectious, but it is not so severe that we should consider isolation and quarantine. We would live in quite an oppressive society is the common cold was justification for isolation just because it was infectious despite the fact it is fairly benign as an illness.
What are the Advantages of a Quarantine?
At least in theory, quarantining an illness should isolate it to a small group of people where it can be safely treated or allowed to fizzle out on its own. To separate the potentially sick from the healthy does protect the healthy and may minimize the spread of the illness.
Another major advantage of quarantines is that they are a simple solution that makes the healthy feel safer. Quarantines are usually done by the healthy to the potentially sick. It allows the local leaders to say they did something which pacifies a frightened public.
One of the most justifiable and terrible quarantines in history is Typhoid Mary, who was an symptom free carrier of Typhoid. She was quarantined for 26 years of her life to protect the public from the outbreaks of typhoid that followed her. She was essentially imprisoned for life because of a disease she had.
What are the Disadvantages of a Quarantine?
Quarantines are not particularly effective. The only moderately effective quarantine I can find is management of Mad Cow Disease. It involved slaughtering 4.5 million head of cattle, which was the only effective solution because Mad Cow is universally fatal and untreatable.
Of course, this is not an option for humans. Quarantines have been rare in modern times. In 2007, a man named James Speaker was quarantined with extensively drug resistant tuberculosis. The last American quarantine before him was in 1963.
Quarantines can pacify a large segment of the population, but they often enrage the quarantined. During a smallpox outbreak in 1983, Local authorities attempted to quarantine the municipality of Muncie, Indiana. The population did not believe they had smallpox and several local officials were shot. Not only was the quarantine unenforceable, it created more problems than it solved.
Another difficulty of quarantines has been how often they are thinly veiled racial oppression. When a majority views a minority as dirty or disease ridden, it lowers the threshold necessary to quarantine them as a group. In 1900, California quarantined a section of San Francisco which was almost exclusively made of Chinese immigrants and their businesses. The effects were devastating to the local businesses and the quarantine was later thrown out by a federal court.
Does a Quarantine make sense for Ebola in America?
Ebola is certainly a dangerous illness with a 70% fatality rate in West Africa. A quarantine was tried in Liberia and Sierra Leone and both seem to have had no benefit and generally only aggravated an already tense public.
Ebola also is quite contagious to those performing funerals and direct caregivers of the sick. So the basic criteria for a quarantine are met in West Africa. Despite this, the quarantines that have been tried were failures. The energy and resources placed in the quarantine would have been much better spent on caring for the sick.
So would and Ebola quarantine in America make sense? The severity of Ebola in a modern health care setting has been much better than in Africa. There has been one death of Ebola in the US with this outbreak of the seven who have been treated. The death of Thomas Duncan was not surprising because even when he came for treatment in Dallas, he was sent home for several days. Despite this, Duncan only gave Ebola to the people you would expect him to transmit to, direct caregivers.
In fact, despite a botched handling of that outbreak, no one in the community developed Ebola. This is consistent with European treatment of Ebola patients where only direct caregivers of the sick have gotten Ebola.
So Ebola is not as severe nor as transmittable in a Western setting. This is not surprising as the toilet may be a greater safeguard than anything else. To take those infected body fluids away and have then adequately treated is probably more important than all of the personal protective equipment on the planet.
Taking all of this into consideration, I think a quarantine of health care workers or civilians who are not sick (which is to say, not contagious) would be neither effective nor beneficial. It is a political band-aid for a non-existent problem. In the history of this outbreak, no one has caught Ebola from a Western health care worker and no one has caught Ebola on a plane. There is simply no evidence to justify a quarantine.
But if even one person would get Ebola, wouldn’t a quarantine be justified?
This is an objection I have found is pretty common. As long as the life of a West African carries as much weight as an American, then this makes no sense. The small risk of an American getting Ebola much be weighted against the hundreds and thousands of lives that traveling health care staff going to West Africa can save. It only makes sense to say this if their lives don’t count. And their lives count!
Isn’t it selfish of those health care workers to risk the public by not quarantining themselves?
No more risk than when you get behind the wheel of your car. 34,000 Americans die in car accidents every year, so far one has died of Ebola ever. When you stop driving for public health reasons, get back to me.
As I have argued before, the burden on the health care workers who go overseas is heavy and to make it heavier only discourages us from going, which is a loss for everyone.
Let me end by asking that we, who want to go to West Africa, not be hindered. Care enough for the dying in West Africa to allow us to go and do what we are good at. It is no risk to you and a very great risk for them. Love them enough to overcome your fear.
And even if you are afraid, know that quarantines don’t really work that well. Find a better solution before you shackle us with a quarantine.