Updated 05 August 2009

40 days of quarantine

Pandemic threats such as swine flu and pneumonic plague have resulted in hundreds of people being quarantined. Read some interesting facts about this practice all over the world.


Death or disfigurement: that's what catching a disease often meant in the past. No wonder people would often go to inhumane lengths to try and avoid being infected.

Quarantine comes in many shapes and sizes, such as the boarding up the homes of people with bubonic plague – with the whole family inside it. Then there were the lepers who were banished from towns and had to warn of their approach by ringing a bell.

Read more about monstrous medieval medicines right here.

And in South Africa, XDR TB sufferers are confined to TB hospitals to try and curb the spread of this infectious disease.

While most of us will probably never experience being so isolated from society, recent pandemic threats, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and swine flu have resulted in hundreds of people being quarantined under varying circumstances, in different parts of the world. This practice allows patients to receive appropriate care, and helps to contain the spread of an illness or disease which is considered to be dangerous.

Read some interesting facts about the practice of quarantine all over the world.

40 days to freedom
The word quarantine is derived from Italian quarantena, meaning “forty days”, referring to the 40-day period of isolation practiced during the Black Death plague. Between 1348 and 1359, this plague wiped out an estimated 30% of Europe’s population, as well as a significant percentage of Asia’s population.

The first astronauts who visited the Moon on Apollo 11 were quarantined on their return at the specially built Lunar Receiving Laboratory, to ensure that they had not contracted any unknown diseases from the moon.

Lonely lepers
People affected with leprosy were historically isolated from society. From 1836 to 1931, Robben Island, just off the coast of Cape Town, was first used as a “leper colony” and animal quarantine station, before it was converted into a maximum security prison for South Africa’s political prisoners during apartheid.

Pet passports
To reduce the risk of introducing rabies, the UK used to require that dogs, and most other animals introduced to the country spend six months in quarantine. The policy was abolished at the beginning of the 21st century in favour of a scheme generally known as Pet Passports, where animals can avoid quarantine, if they have the necessary documents to show that they are up to date with the appropriate vaccinations.

PC virus
In computer science, “quarantined files” usually refers to files that have been infected by a computer virus. These files are redirected to a special location (directory) to reduce the threat they may pose, and prevent them from infecting other files.

Typhoid Mary
The quarantining of Mary Mallon in New York in the early 20th century raised civil rights questions. She was a carrier of typhoid fever, and despite being healthy herself, was considered a public health hazard. She is alleged to have infected 53 people, 3 of whom died from the disease. Initially, she denied having the disease, working as a cook, and changing her name to Mary Brown, to avoid authorities. "Typhoid Mary" is now used as a generic term for a carrier of a dangerous disease who is a danger to the public because of refusal to take appropriate precautions.

Black sheep?
During World War II (1942), British forces tested their biological weapons programme on Gruinard Island and infected it with anthrax. The quarantine was lifted in 1990 when the island was declared safe and a flock of sheep were released onto the island.

Closer to home
In South Africa, a debate has been raging since 2006 when the WHO announced that a deadly new strain of extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) had been found in a rural town in KwaZulu-Natal.

Certain members of the scientific community have called for the isolation of infected patients, contending that XDR-TB is a serious global health threat and has the potential to derail the global efforts to contain HIV/AIDS,

South African officials have raised human rights concerns although they have conceded that forcible treatment may be a viable option in tackling the outbreak. The SA judiciary has the authority to issue orders compelling involuntary confinement or hospitalisation and treatment, even against the wishes of an affected party, if doing so is in the public interest.

(Thania Gopal, updated August 2012)

Singh JA, Upshur R, Padayatchi N (2007) XDR-TB in South Africa: No Time for Denial or Complacency. PLoS Med 4(1): e50. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040050


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