A Bit More On The History Of Quarantine

After Maine nurse Kaci Hickox defied a voluntary quarantine order this Thursday in order to go on a casual bike ride with her boyfriend, we thought it might be useful to point out a bit of quarantine history from our Tuesday broadcast on just that subject.

Hickox, who traveled to the Ebola-stricken nation of Sierra Leone to work with Doctors Without Borders earlier this fall, has been at the center of a media and political firestorm for her refusal to abide by state-ordered quarantine measures in New Jersey and her home state of Maine. Hickox has tested negative for Ebola, and shows no symptoms of the often-deadly disease. (A patient must be outwardly symptomatic in order to spread the disease, medicine has shown.) While she  may not have legal standing — she's threatened to fight the state of Maine for its attempts to keep her out of public — it's worth exploring the history of disease quarantine measures in the Untied States and abroad.

Our guest, Dr. Howard Markel of the University of Michigan, pointed out that the concept of quarantine has been around with us for quite a while. The idea of 'quarantine,' or the word, emerged in the Middle Ages in Venice, now Italy, in response to the Black Plague of the 1370s. Ships entering the port were made to rest in isolation for 40 days, although the timeline isn't necessarily shown to have had any scientific basis.

In the United States, quarantine has raised its head from time to time — a 1730 quarantine in New York City for small pox, 1919 quarantine in response to the Spanish Flu — but it always flares up when a new disease makes the scene.

"There was a call in the 1980s to quarantine HIV and AIDS patients," Markel said. "But that really wouldn't have done much."

It's important to note, our guests told us, that quarantine throughout history is a constantly changing process of rule refining and scientifc fine-tuning. Sometimes, quarantines are based on hard and fast science, and other times, it's based on a legal and public health / awareness conversation that individuals caught up in the mix can ultimately lose.

The media parade surrounding Hickox won't end for a while, but while it lasts, take a minute and learn a little bit more about the history of quarantine measures.


More from On Point

Listen Live