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Facts About Quarantine

What is Quarantine?

Quarantine is the restriction of the movement of well persons exposed to infection to prevent them from infecting others, including family members, friends and neighbors. It is different from "isolation" which refers to restrictions placed on persons who actually show signs and symptoms of infection with a contagious disease. Quarantine can also refer to the separation animals or places or even inanimate objects that carry or are suspected of harboring microorganisms of communicable disease.

History and Uses of Quarantine

The term originally referred to the 40 days of offshore wait during which incoming vessels could not discharge passengers or cargo in the distant past era when the plague and other great epidemics swept across Europe. In fact, some nations still maintain extended periods of quarantine for cattle and household pets coming from another country to guard against such diseases as foot-and-mouth disease and rabies. Plant life may also be held for assurance that fungus and other plant diseases are not being introduced.

Local quarantine regulations are also in effect to guard against the spread of communicable disease. Alabama law requires that physicians report certain infections to the authorities. The patients (and those who have come in contact with them) may be quarantined or separated and their personal effects disinfected, condemned or destroyed, if it is in the public interest, since quarantine laws supersede even property rights. Although antibiotics, vaccinations and other treatments have greatly reduced the use of quarantine in public health, persons with newly recognized or hard to treat communicable diseases may still be quarantined or isolated by health officials.

Recent experiences with emerging infectious diseases such as West Nile Virus, SARS, and monkeypox have illustrated the speed with which disease may spread throughout the world and the impact communicable diseases, when left unchecked, may have on the global economy. As diseases evolve naturally or as a result of human intervention, it is important to ensure that containment procedures reflect new threats and uniform ways to respond to them.

How Quarantine Helps Prevent Outbreaks

Whether it is naturally occurring or intentionally caused preventing an outbreak requires the use of the most rapid and effective public health tools available. These tools include basic public health practices such as disease reporting, referred to above, and identification and notification of contacts who may have been exposed to a communicable disease so that they may receive preventive measures. Quarantine of exposed persons may be the best initial way to prevent the uncontrolled spread of highly dangerous biologic agents such as smallpox, plague, and Ebola fever--especially when combined with other health strategies such as vaccination, prophylactic drug treatment, patient isolation, and other appropriate infection control measures. Quarantine may be particularly important if a biologic agent has been rendered contagious, drug-resistant, or vaccine resistant through bioengineering, making other disease control measures less effective.

How Quarantine is Enforced

Quarantine may be enforced by law in Alabama as in most states; however the most effective way to control quarantinable diseases is to have the voluntary cooperation of exposed or infected people. In fact, in mass disease outbreaks, involuntary quarantine would be very difficult to enforce. Voluntary quarantine was used effectively in Toronto, Canada in 2003 to control the spread of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome,) a sometimes deadly pneumonia-like illness. Over 30,000 people were voluntarily quarantined. Since the provincial government sought and obtained the public's cooperation, only 27 people required an actual written quarantine order. Of those, only one actually went to court.

Human quarantine law in Alabama maybe found at Code of Ala.1975, Sections 22-12-1 and following. Animal quarantine statues are found in Chapter 15 of Title 2 of Code of Ala.1975.

Written by John R. Wible, General Counsel
Alabama Department of Public Health

Page last updated: May 13, 2021