Quarantine in the Age of Ebola

Robert Cutillo | November 20, 2014

A physician I know recently returned from Africa after caring for patients with Ebola. One evening his patient of 18 years tearfully told him that her two grown daughters warned her that, if she kept her appointment with him, she would not be able to see her grandchildren for three weeks. The hospital where he delivers babies also barred him from coming for the same time. Elsewhere, a teacher in Kentucky who had traveled to Kenya resigned rather than submit to a three-week ban from her school, even though she was 3,000 miles away from anyone with Ebola. 

Separation of individuals—proven, presumed, or potentially contagious—has been a common response to reduce the spread of disease for centuries. During the epidemics of the Middle Ages, one of which killed 25 percent of the European population, no microbial science yet existed that could identify agents of causation, define incubation periods, or discern modes of transmission. Is it clothes? Skin? Water? An odor in the air? Isolating individuals for 40 days, a quarantina of time, was based less on fact and more on the religious significance of 40 days in Judeo-Christian theology as a time of cleansing and purification.

In the Middle Ages…

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