Penn-led bioethics panel calls American Ebola quarantines too restrictive

    The bioethics advisory panel for President Obama has come out against the 21-day quarantines of those exposed to Ebola that New Jersey and other states adopted in response to the West African epidemic.

    “It is an ethical mistake, and it is a prudential mistake,” said University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann, who chairs the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

    The group released a report Thursday calling on governments to use the “least restrictive means necessary” to control epidemics.

    While quarantines can be useful in stopping the spread of disease, they impinge on personal liberty, and deploying them can backfire if too few doctors and nurses are willing to volunteer as a result.

    “We lost lives — we did not save lives — by making people who did not have symptoms be quarantined for 21 days,” said Gutmann.

    The calculus might be very different for a different disease, such as the measles, she said. But Ebola, despite its high fatality rate, is far less contagious, and can only be spread when individuals are symptomatic.

    The commission’s report tackles other ethical questions raised by the ongoing Ebola epidemic, including how to perform clinical trials for drugs or diseases ethically. It offers suggestions on how to  prepare for the next outbreak.

    The group recommends increasing funding to the World Health Organization and charging one public health official — perhaps the Department of Health and Human Services secretary — with coordinating all emergency efforts.

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