Nobel Prize-Winning Physician Backs Ebola Quarantine For Health Workers

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A Nobel Prize-winning doctor is defending several state quarantines for health workers who treated Ebola patients and criticized public officials for not ensuring safety.

Dr. Bruce Beutler, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 2011, is the Director of the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where the first U.S. cases of Ebola were contracted. Beutler told NJ Advance Media Thursday that the controversial quarantine policy for health workers is the right course of action — and that it should go even further.

“I favor it, because it’s not entirely clear that they can’t transmit the disease,” Beutler said of asymptomatic health workers who have treated Ebola patients. “It may not be absolutely true that those without symptoms can’t transmit the disease, because we don’t have the numbers to back that up.”

President Obama and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have insisted that Ebola cannot be transmitted unless a patient has a fever. Beutler heartily disagrees that public officials should be so sure that this is the case.

“There’s some imperative to prevent panic among the public,” Buetler said. “But to be honest, people have not examined that with transmissibility in mind. I don’t completely trust people who’d say that as dogma.”

A nurse, Kaci Hickox, who treated Ebola patients in Sierra Leone with Doctors Without Borders, is currently defying Maine’s request for her to self-quarantine. Maine Gov. Paul Le Page working on legal action to keep Hickox away from the rest of the Maine public for 21 days, when most Ebola symptoms would have shown up if Hickox is infected.

Hickox claims that she is “feeling physically well.” She was first detained in New Jersey by Gov. Chris Christie upon her return to the U.S. when she displayed a fever, but when she tested negative for a fever several days later, she was released to Maine, who’s now trying and failing to quarantine her while she still may have the disease.

“It could be people develop significant viremia, [when bodily fluids are infected with the virus,] and become able to transmit the disease before they have a fever, even,” Beutler said. “People may have said that without symptoms you can’t transmit Ebola. I’m not sure about that being 100 percent true.”

And Beutler questions whether anyone — even well-intentioned health workers who willingly go to treat Ebola patients — can be trusted to tell on their own whether they’re somewhat symptomatic.

“Even if someone is asymptomatic you cannot rely on people to report themselves if they get a fever,” Beutler added. “You can’t just depend on the goodwill of people to confine the disease like that — even health care workers. They behave very irresponsibly.”

Dr. Craig Spencer, a New York physician who’s being treated for Ebola after treating patients in West Africa, had promised health officials that he would self-quarantine himself for three weeks upon his return from treating Ebola patients — but he didn’t. Hickox went on a bike ride against Maine officials’ request on Thursday. She’s slammed both New Jersey’s and Maine’s quarantines, saying she “make[s] decisions on science.”

“I am completely healthy,” Hickox said. “There is no way I would give you Ebola.”

“These are no arguments at all,” Beutler said of Hickox’s protestations. “Anyone could say that about any disease. It doesn’t matter that she was afebrile — she should be quarantined for 21 days.”

Beutner told NJ Advance Media that he’s “puzzled” by Hickox’s complaints that her civil rights have been violated.

“These people act like they are returning as conquering heroes — and they should be treated as conquering heroes, but part of being a conquering hero means making sure no one gets infected by you,” Beutler said. 

When asked about New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s approach, Beutler said he’d be “a little bit more strict than [Christie] is being…I realize this would be inconvenient, but I don’t think it would prevent treating the disease.” The difference: Beutler would prefer that patients be quarantined in a specialized hospital ward, not a home, so that they can be isolated from family members as well.

“It’s a little bit frustrating. Some of the things that are being done are not completely motivated by safety,” Beutler said. “For some reason, there’s an imperative to maintain open borders no matter what — to err on the side of total individual freedom rather than on the side of public health.”

“If you really want to isolate a disease, then you have to isolate the people who carry it,” Beutler concluded.

The decision to quarantine returning health workers who have been exposed to Ebola patients has been adopted by New Jersey,  New York, and Illinois; Maine is still working on a plan to keep Hickox away from other citizens.

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