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A Brief Quarantine History Around the Globe

Eleanor Klibanoff | NPR   in 
November 3, 2014

When American nurse Kaci Hickox came home after treating Ebola patients in Liberia, she was quarantined in a tent at Newark Liberty International Airport for three days — even though she showed no signs of illness.

The idea of putting a possibly sick person in quarantine goes back to the ancient texts. The book of Leviticus tells how to quarantine lepers. Hippocrates covered the issue in a three-volume set on epidemics, though he came from a time in ancient Greece when disease was thought to spread from “miasmas,” or foul-smelling gas that came out of the ground. With proposed quarantines for Americans exposed to Ebola in the news, we offer a look at quarantine use — and abuse — over the ages.

Bubonic plague in Venice (1370)

The so-called Black Death killed 20 million Europeans in the 14th century. So Venice, a major trade port, grew nervous. If a ship was suspected of harboring plague, it had to wait 40 days before any passengers or goods could come ashore. Venice built a hospital/quarantine center on an island off its coast, where sailors from plague-infested ships were sent either to get better, or, more likely, to die. This 40-day waiting period became known as quarantinario, from the Italian word for 40. As opinions about the disease changed, the isolation period shrank to trentinario — 30 days — but the original name stuck.


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