Bioethics Blogs

The Great Ebola Race: An appeal to honor the common good

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

In the time of the black plague, people with symptoms were often placed into separate areas. The sick and symptomatic were separated from the general populace.

When ships came into harbors they were often kept there for weeks until it was assured that they did not carry disease with them.

Cities would close their gates to travels to prevent anyone from arriving who might bring disease as well as to protect travelers from disease when it raged within.

When immigrants passed through Ellis Island with symptoms of infectious diseases they were kept on the island until they were better or sent back home.

During measles outbreaks in the 1950s, my parents tell stories of houses having red marks on them so you knew that someone in this house was sick and you should not enter.

Quarantine and isolation are the oldest and most successful tools of public health. When a disease has the potential to infect others, isolating those who suffer from infection as well as those who have contact with them helps to prevent the disease from spreading throughout the general populace. When used properly, quarantine is very effective, especially for diseases that spread human-to-human without an animal or insect vector (like plague which is passed by fleas that feed on rats).

Isolation is when people are asked to voluntarily isolate themselves from the general populace. They are asked to keep to themselves to protect us. Yes, this limits their civil liberties of travel, commerce, and socializing. But they undertake this with the understanding that in certain times the well-being of the community takes precedence over the convenience of the individual.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.