Ebola: ‘Forcible quarantine wrong’

Published: Monday 27th October 2014 by The News Editor

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The gulf between politicians and scientists over Ebola has widened after America’s top infectious disease expert warned that mandatory, 21-day quarantine for medical workers returning from west Africa was unnecessary and could discourage volunteers.

“The best way to protect us is to stop the epidemic in Africa and we need those health care workers, so we do not want to put them in a position where it makes it very, very uncomfortable for them to even volunteer to go,” said Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Meanwhile, Kaci Hickox, the first nurse forcibly quarantined in New Jersey under the state’s new policy, said her isolation at a hospital was “inhumane”, adding: “We have to be very careful about letting politicians make health decisions.”

On Friday, the governors of New York and New Jersey, who say the national health guidelines are inadequate, announced a mandatory quarantine programme for medical workers and other arriving airline passengers who have had contact with Ebola victims in west Africa.;

Illinois soon followed suit and Florida governor Rick Scott ordered twice-daily monitoring for 21 days – the incubation period for Ebola – of anyone returning from virus-stricken areas.

But early today New York governor Andrew Cuomo softened the restrictions, saying health care workers would be quarantined at home rather than a government-regulated centre and receive twice-daily monitoring from medical professionals.

New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie defended quarantining, saying it was necessary to protect the public and predicted it “will become a national policy sooner rather than later”.

“I don’t believe when you’re dealing with something as serious as this that we can count on a voluntary system,” said Mr Christie, who is expected to run for the Republican nomination for US president in 2016.

But the Obama administration considers the policy in New York and New Jersey to be “not grounded in science” and has conveyed its concerns to Mr Christie and Mr Cuomo, according to a senior administration official.

Dr Fauci went on five major morning talk shows to argue that policy should be guided by science and that science says people with the virus are not contagious until symptoms appear. And even then, infection requires direct contact with bodily fluids.

He said close monitoring of medical workers for symptoms was sufficient and warned that forcibly separating them from others or quarantining them for three weeks could cripple the fight against the outbreak in west Africa – an argument also made by humanitarian medical organisations.

The World Health Organisation says more than 10,000 people have been infected with Ebola in the outbreak that came to light last March and nearly half of them have died, mostly in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Earlier this month, four members of a family in Texas that Ebola victim Thomas Duncan stayed with before he died were confined to their home under armed guard after failing to obey a request not to leave their apartment.

And 75 hospital workers in Dallas, Texas, were asked to sign legally-binding documents in which they agreed not go to public places or use public transport.

The New York-area quarantine measures were announced after Dr Craig Spencer was admitted to a hospital to be treated for Ebola a week after returning to New York City from treating Ebola victims in Guinea for Doctors Without Borders. In the week after his return, he travelled on the tube network, went bowling and ate at a restaurant.

Dr Spencer is in a serious but stable condition, looking better than he did the day before, and coping well with a plasma treatment from an Ebola survivor, hospital bosses said.

Quarantined nurse Ms Hickox said she had no Ebola symptoms and tested negative for Ebola in a preliminary evaluation.

“It’s just a slippery slope, not a sound public health decision,” she said of the quarantine policy. “I want to be treated with compassion and humanity, and don’t feel I’ve been treated that way.”

She now has access to a computer, her mobile phone, magazines and newspapers and has been allowed to have takeaways, New Jersey Health Department said.

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio called Ms Hickox a “returning hero” and agreed that she was “treated with disrespect”, as if she had done something wrong, when she was put into quarantine. He said she was interrogated repeatedly and things were not explained well to her.

US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who arrived in Guinea yesterday, said the new quarantine policies were “haphazard” and returning US health care workers should be “treated like conquering heroes and not stigmatised for the tremendous work that they have done”.

The New York area quarantine policies could also affect UN staffers returning from Ebola-hit countries. Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, said “we comply with the health policies for New York state”.

Last week Mr Ban reiterated that “isolation only hampers international efforts to reach people in need”. A new UN mission to counter the Ebola outbreak has staffers in all three of the worst-hit countries in west Africa.

Meanwhile President Barack Obama met with his Ebola response team, including “Ebola czar” Ron Klain and other public health and national security staff. According to a statement released by the White House, Mr Obama said any measures concerning returning health care workers “should be crafted so as not to unnecessarily discourage those workers from serving”.

Published: Monday 27th October 2014 by The News Editor

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