At Saturday night’s Republican debate, Gov. Chris Christie said he would quarantine people coming from Brazil — including people who travel to the Olympics — to try to contain the Zika virus, a disease that has been linked to infant microcephaly and neurological disorders. The virus, which is spread through mosquitoes and can be sexually transmitted, is plaguing Brazil and has been found as far north as the southern United States.
Moderator Martha Raddatz asked, given the spread of the Zika virus and the upcoming Rio Olympics, “Is there a scenario where you would quarantine people traveling back from Brazil to prevent the spread in the United States?”
Christie pointed to his widely-criticized use of quarantine during the Ebola crisis in 2014.
“You bet I would,” Christie replied. “And the fact is that because I took strong action to make sure that anyone who was showing symptoms — remember what happened with that nurse. She was showing symptoms and coming back from a place that had the Ebola virus active and she had been treating patients. This was not just someone, we picked her up just for the heck of it. We did it because she was showing symptoms. And the fact is, that’s how we should make these decisions.”
But the real story is much less clear cut than Christie suggests.
The nurse, Kaci Hicox, who had just returned from treating Ebola in Sierra Leone, was not showing symptoms as Christie suggested. As a responsible medical professional, she planned to self-isolate when she got home and monitor herself to make sure she was free of the disease. But before she could reach her home in Maine, she was held at the airport for seven hours before being moved to an unheated tent outside the University Hospital in Newark, wearing only paper scrubs. She later sued Christie for her treatment.
Christie’s overzealous response was also harshly criticized by medical experts with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Doctors Without Borders, which warned that “draconian” quarantines actually damaged the effort to defeat Ebola by discouraging doctors and nurses from volunteering to help the effort in West Africa.
Medical institutions have not yet suggested quarantine as an effective way to prevent the spread of the virus. As Christie’s fellow candidate, Dr. Ben Carson, noted, a quarantine policy is only helpful if there is scientific evidence that the individual is infected and that a quarantine will help. But experts are recommending another policy the firmly anti-abortion Republican field may not be happy about. The United Nations is now calling for countries to give women access to birth control and abortion to stop the effects of the virus. A judge in Brazil, which has a strict anti-abortion law, announced last week that he would allow abortions in the case of microencephaly.