Wash U Expert: Ebola quarantines essential for public health

Recent events illustrate need for restrictive measures, individual responsibility, Dresser says

Recent revelations that Nancy Snyderman, MD, NBC News’ chief medical correspondent, violated an Ebola quarantine after returning from Africa, and that a Dallas health care worker infected with the virus boarded a commercial jet have focused the nation’s attention on Ebola and what can be done to protect citizens.


While measures like quarantine do restrict the freedom of exposed individuals, they do so to protect the public’s health, says a Washington University in St. Louis expert on biomedical ethics.

“The NBC team incident is a reminder that people will sometimes resist the restrictions quarantine imposes,” said Rebecca Dresser, JD, the Daniel Noyes Kirby Professor of Law and professor of ethics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who pointed out that living under such restrictions is neither pleasant nor easy.

“This incident shows that health professionals are not immune from such behavior, that promises to adhere to public health restrictions are not always kept, and that restrictions can be violated for trivial reasons,” Dresser said.

“It also helps us understand why public health measures have been relatively ineffective in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, where poverty and living conditions create much greater impediments to effective quarantine programs.”

Preventing Ebola’s spread in countries like the U.S. and Spain will require individuals to cooperate with quarantine and other restrictions, she said.

“Individual responsibility will be an essential element of effective public health protection,” Dresser said. “We should also make sure that people in need receive financial and other assistance to reduce the burdens they bear for the sake of the rest of us.”