9 Examples of Quarantine and Isolation Measures Throughout History
Since the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in November 2019, numbers of coronavirus infections have surged worldwide, leading the World Health Organization (WHO) to officially announce that the outbreak is a pandemic.
After alarms were first raised in China, thousands were put into quarantine in the country. Today, countries, including Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and India, are seeing unprecedented nationwide police-enforced lockdowns keep millions at home.
Here are some of history's best-known examples of quarantines that date back as far as the times of the Ancient Greeks.
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1. Examples of isolation of the sick are recorded in the Bible
Leprosy, which is often mentioned in the Old and the New Testament of the Bible, is the first disease for which there is a written record of cases of isolation for the sick.
In the Old Testament, several verses point out the need to isolate, and often exile, the sick. Throughout much of the Middle Ages, leper colonies were administered by the Catholic Church to keep people suffering from leprosy away from large populations.
Sadly, these people were ostracised and exiled from society due to the incorrect belief, prevalent in those times, that leprosy was a highly contagious disease. While the bacterium responsible for leprosy, Mycobacterium leprae (discovered in 1873), did cause disfigurement and was incurable at the time, it is not as easily spread as was once thought.
2. The ancient Greeks also isolated their sick
The modern idea for the quarantine likely originates in ancient Greek medical practice. The ancient Greeks had a doctrine of "critical days," which stated that contagious disease would develop within 40 days after exposure.
Though they weren't privy to the knowledge of the human body, on a molecular level that we have today, the ancient Greeks are known for their keen observational science. The doctrine of "critical days" is thought to have come from Pythagoras due to his predilection for numbers.
3. The first quarantine was actually a 'trentino'
In 1348, an outbreak of the bubonic plague started to spread through cities like Venice and Milan. The epidemics, which were particularly prevalent in cities with seaports, surged throughout the 14th century.
Surviving historical documents show that the Adriatic port city of Ragusa, known today as Dubrovnik, passed legislation in 1377 requiring Ships, known to have come from other cities suffering from a lot of infections, to sit at anchor for 30 days before anyone was allowed to set foot on dry land.
As Dubrovnik, or Ragusa, was under Italian rule at the time, the 30-day period stipulated in the quarantine order was named a 'trentino' in Italian — derived from '30 days' in the Italian language.
As History points out, some medical historians today consider Ragusa’s quarantine legislation to be one of the most impressive achievements in medieval medicine, as it showed a remarkable understanding of the incubation periods of infectious diseases during a time in which people had no notion of bacteria or viruses.
4. The word 'quarantine' originated during the Middle Ages in Italy
The practice of quarantine, as we know it today, began in the 14th century as part of a concerted effort to stop the spread of plague epidemics via sea trade and land caravans.
The word 'quarantine' comes from the Italian words quaranta giorni, meaning 40 days. After the 'trentino' edict was penned in Ragusa in 1377, historians say that doctors and officials were given the authority to impose shorter or longer isolation periods.
It is believed that the 40-day' quarantine' eventually became the norm over the 'trentino' due to its religious significance — Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days, and Noah's biblical flood was caused by rain that lasted 40 days and 40 nights — during a time in which the Catholic church had great power.
Today, modern science allows us to know more about the infection rate and incubation period of an infectious disease, meaning that quarantine periods vary depending on the disease — people showing potential symptoms for COVID-19 are generally advised to self-isolate for the incubation period of two weeks.
5. It was used to combat the Black Death
Following the measures first adopted in Italian cities, many other regions started to use the same method of isolating potentially infected people for 40 days.
One town in the UK, called Eyam, famously self-imposed strict quarantine methods in 1666 when the Black Death was spread from London to the northern UK town. The residents decided to stay in the town rather than flee to nearby regions where they could spread the disease, which killed 25% of London's population.
It was eventually discovered that Eyam's tailor had ordered a bale of cloth from London. The cloth carried plague-ridden fleas to the town, leading to the eventual death of a third of Eyam's 750 residents at the time. Their decision to self-quarantine likely saved many others.
6. U.S. cholera outbreaks and CDC regulations
After the United States was established, several outbreaks of yellow fever led to Congress passing federal quarantine legislation in 1878 that allowed for federal involvement in imposing strict quarantine measures on groups of people.
Outbreaks of cholera were then spread via passenger ships from Europe, leading to changes in the law in 1892 that allowed the federal government more authority. In 1921, the quarantine system was fully nationalized.
Quarantine measures in the U.S. have been regulated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since 1967.
7. Typhoid Mary, the first-known asymptomatic carrier of tuberculosis
One of the most infamous examples of an individual being quarantined in history is that of Mary Mallon, an Irish cook who is now also known by the name of "Typhoid Mary."
Mallon was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever in the early 20th century. Though she never felt ill herself, she spread the disease to families for whom she worked as a household cook.
Mallon was quarantined by U.S. officials on North Brother Island in New York for three years. She was released after promising never to cook again. After she broke this vow, she was sent back to the island where she remained for the rest of her life in isolation.
8. Andrew Speaker and drug-resistant Tuberculosis
A more recent example of an individual being quarantined is that of attorney Andrew Speaker who, in 2007, was quarantined by public health officials as he was infected by a drug-resistant form of tuberculosis.
Speaker broke the quarantine and flew to Italy despite knowing he could infect others with the specific, dangerous form of TB that he carried. On returning to the United States, Speaker was apprehended by federal authorities and quarantined at a medical center in Denver.
Following treatment, Speaker was no longer deemed contagious, though he earned widespread negative global attention for breaking the quarantine.
9. Recent measures for Ebola, SARS, and the flu
In recent history, quarantine measures have been employed to help combat the spread of infectious diseases such as Ebola, influenza, and SARS.
It is, of course, a serious decision to restrict an individual's freedom. however, the method has been shown to be effective at preventing widespread infection of diseases worldwide. Though it is not 100% effective, as evidenced by the ongoing spread of SARS COV-2, it has been shown to be highly effective for some diseases.
For SARS, for example, quarantine was shown to be highly effective as a method of protecting the public. SARS was typically only highly transmissible in patients after symptoms had already started. The problem with SARS COV-2 is that it is highly transmissible even before patients show any symptoms, meaning that it is a lot harder to contain.
Quarantine is not a surefire method for preventing the spread of disease, however, because of SARS COV-2's high infection rate, without these methods, cases would very likely be much higher than they are today.