For a moment, imagine being sick with the worst illness you have experienced in your life. Your only wishes are to see your family, be in a comfortable place, and receive the care needed to recover.
With highly virulent and contagious diseases comes the fear of them spreading. Therefore, it’s often necessary for public health professionals to place pre-symptomatic individuals in quarantine to ensure that the disease doesn’t spread through the healthy population.
When considering the ethics involved in quarantine, it’s important to realize the difference between quarantine and isolation. Isolation is the separation of infected individuals from healthy people while quarantine involves the separation of people that have been exposed to a disease and are not yet symptomatic.
A Recent Instance of Quarantine
After the awful Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, the world was on edge about any indications of the disease popping up again. According to the World Health Organization, Liberia had no cases for three months–that is, until a 15 year old boy tested positive for Ebola in late November of 2015.
Epidemiologists came quickly to the scene, knowing the ability of this disease to jump from person to person and the horrible symptoms it has. The WHO explains that 165 individuals that were in contact with the child were put into quarantine for 21 days (the incubation period for Ebola) in Montserrado County, Liberia. While these people weren’t showing symptoms of the disease, it was important to separate them for at least the incubation period of the virus to ensure it wouldn’t spread throughout the nation.
According to the CDC, American health officials within the CDC have the right under federal law to detain, medically examine, and release individuals at their own discretion when under suspicion of carrying a communicable disease.
While detaining individuals is typical for a crime, innocent and sick humans must be separated, forcefully if needed, to prevent the spread of an illness they may be carrying. In America, it is the federal government’s job to monitor diseases coming into the nation and between states while state governments handle local quarantine events.
The American Medical Association Journal of Ethics explains two considerations while drawing up plans for quarantine:
Many variables play into the decision, such as how virulent and contagious a disease is, how densely populated the area is, and the amount of people in contact with an infected individual needing to be quarantined.
Answering the two considerations above may help health professionals come to an ethical agreement, but an official with strong morals will find it hard to place potentially healthy individuals in a space suspected of having a harmful disease present.
No matter the circumstances, though, measures should be put into place to ensure the people placed in quarantine are treated with the upmost respect and empathy. Kaci Hickox, a nurse quarantined in New Jersey after treating Ebola patients, described to CNN the “inhumane” nature of the quarantine event.
According to NBC News, following the 21 day quarantine in a hospital, Hickox filed a lawsuit against New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for false imprisonment, violation of due process and invasion of privacy. The quarantine incident was widely covered by the media and sparked a debate about the ethical foundations of quarantine.
If you have comments or questions about the ethical issues surrounding quarantine or isolation events please leave a comment in the section below.