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Top U.S. health official warns of risks from Ebola quarantines

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - Quarantines imposed on travelers from Ebola-affected West African nations are a "little bit draconian," a senior U.S. health official said on Sunday, warning new rules by three states could discourage medical worker...

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - Quarantines imposed on travelers from Ebola-affected West African nations are a "little bit draconian," a senior U.S. health official said on Sunday, warning new rules by three states could discourage medical workers from helping fight the epidemic.

New York, New Jersey and Illinois imposed 21-day mandatory quarantines in the last two days for anyone arriving with a high risk of having contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea - the three African countries where the epidemic has killed nearly 5,000 people.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who announced the new policy on Friday, are already under pressure from the White House to reverse the directives, the New York Times reported on Sunday afternoon.

The quarantine rules are an "uncoordinated, very hurried, an immediate reaction to the New York City case that doesn't comport with science," an unnamed administration official told the Times.

The source was referring to Dr. Craig Spencer, who was diagnosed with Ebola after he returned from treating patients in Guinea. The doctor, now in isolation, moved freely around the city before he had symptoms. Doctors say he was not contagious at that stage but his actions have raised public concern.


"I don't want to be directly criticizing the decision that was made but we have to be careful that there are unintended consequences," Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC's "Meet the Press" television program.

He called the measures, which go well beyond federal guidelines, "a little bit draconian."

"The best way to stop this epidemic is to help the people in West Africa. We do that by sending people over there, not only from the U.S.A. but from other places," said Fauci.

The first person isolated under the new orders was a nurse who arrived on Friday at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey after working in Sierra Leone with Ebola patients.

The nurse, Kaci Hickox, strongly criticized the quarantine policy, describing hours of questioning and being transferred to a hospital isolation tent. On Sunday, she told CNN she failed to understand the rationale for the policy.

She was particularly scathing about Christie's remarks that she was "obviously ill" when she arrived at Newark airport.

"First of all I don't think he's a doctor and secondly he's never laid eyes on me," she said. "I am completely healthy and with no symptoms," Hickox told CNN.

Fauci reiterated that Ebola is extremely difficult to catch. It is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person and is not transmitted by people who are not showing symptoms.


But Christie defended his approach.

“This is government’s job. If anything else, the government’s job is to protect the safety and health of our citizens,” he told the "Fox News Sunday" television program.

The virus has killed almost half of more than 10,000 people diagnosed with the disease - predominantly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.


In defending the new quarantine rules, Christie has emerged as a prominent critic of the Obama administration's handling of the Ebola crisis.

Christie is considered a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and his aggressive stance could give a boost to his party in the midterm elections on Nov. 4, when the party hopes to take control of the U.S. Senate.

Missteps in handling the first diagnosis of Ebola on U.S. soil - a Liberian visitor to Texas in September - have opened the door for Republican attacks on President Barack Obama and his administration.

Four people, including the Liberian who died in Dallas, have been diagnosed with Ebola in the United States.


A Republican lawmaker said lack of trust in the federal government led New York and New Jersey to take action, adding it was not a partisan issue.

"Governors of both parties are reacting to an absence of leadership and belief that the federal government knows what they are doing," Congressman Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told "Meet the Press." New York's Cuomo and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn are both Democrats.


The quarantine measures were imposed partly in response to the case of Spencer, the New York doctor.

Both he and Hickox, the nurse who was quarantined in Newark, worked with Doctors Without Borders. The charity, a leading part of international efforts to fight the epidemic, criticized Hickox' treatment and questioned the quarantine policies.

"Quarantine measures or coercive measures against aid workers could give a superfluous sense of security, while the most important (thing) is to tackle the epidemic at its source," Sophie Delauney, the charity's U.S. executive director, said on "Meet the Press."

Hickox said she feared what lies ahead for other U.S. health workers helping to combat the epidemic. "Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?" she wrote in an article published on Saturday by the Dallas Morning News on its website.

"We have to be very careful about letting politicians make medical and public health decisions," she said on CNN.


Newark's University Hospital said the nurse remained in isolation and under observation "in a climate-controlled, indoor, extended care area in a building adjacent to the hospital." Doctors Without Borders said her tent was not heated.

Meanwhile, Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, arrived in Guinea's capital, Conakry, on Sunday and planned to visit Liberia and Sierra Leone for a first-hand view of the global response to Ebola.

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