Isolate Ebola's Typhoid Marys

Centuries ago, the Venetian government did more than ours to prevent deadly infections.

As the president and various governors have argued about what to do, or not do, about Ebola, the philosopher George Santayana's warning repeatedly popped into my consciousness: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

I don't think of the present as a carbon copy of the past. Still, history can be a cautionary tale, offering clues to present-day problems. Take the current buzzword "quarantine," for instance. It comes from the Italian for the number 40, and dates to an earlier epidemic, the Black Death, that decimated medieval Europe.

When the government of Venice suspected the deadly disease was arriving aboard ships, it decreed that sailors and travelers would be isolated on an island for 40 days before being allowed into the city. It's unclear how effective the quarantine was, despite the Venetian senate's boast that "everybody knows how it has protected the city from the plague."

But at least Venetians knew their government was trying. When seemingly symptom-free detainees brought their infection ashore, a second quarantine island — a sort of halfway house — was established where they had to spend another 40 days.

By contrast, the U.S. government has been demonstrating symptoms of a split-personality disorder. While the White House was criticizing the governors of New York and New Jersey for quarantining health workers returning from West Africa, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that soldiers dispatched to Ebola-infected areas would be isolated for 21 days.

I happen to have a circle of friends in Italy. So I'm pleased that the people of Vicenza, near the base to which those GIs are returning, are being protected against Ebola. But what about Vernon Valley, N.J.? Doesn't it deserve the same concern?

President Barack Obama is adamantly opposed to a travel ban on countries ravaged by Ebola. He says it would make it nearly impossible to get desperately needed doctors and nurses there — an argument I don't buy. Why not a travel ban that specifically exempts health workers? The big picture of who can currently travel where makes no sense to me.

Residents of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — where Ebola is epidemic — are banned from other African nations, like Kenya, Cape Verde, Mauritius, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, South Sudan and Chad. But they are free to come to the U.S., provided they enter through designated entry points, including Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Supposedly, Americans are protected by screening of new arrivals according to a questionnaire asking if they've been in contact with any Ebola victims.

Yet as Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, noted, like any honor system, the screening protocol has its limits: "Some people lie," he told the Tribune .

Of course they do. It's human nature to be tempted to bend the truth when given the chance to get from a bad place to a good place. As a child, my maternal grandfather came to America in the care of a family named Weinberg. Asked at Ellis Island if he was also a Weinberg, he nodded, "Yes." Which is how Harry Kamenovich of Poland became Harry Weinberg of the West Side.

How much greater would be the temptation for someone leaving a country stricken by Ebola?

The screening questionnaire also notes that travelers must contact public health authorities if they experience symptoms within 21 days of arriving.

What about those who don't? A capacity for denial seems built into our psyches. Won't someone think: "I'm not sick. It's just a little fever. I couldn't infect anyone."

Consider the case of Typhoid Mary, as Mary Mallon was dubbed. A carrier of the germ associated with typhoid fever, she passed it on to at least 53 people, at least three of whom died. One family for whom she was a cook hired a typhoid researcher who found the common denominator of its and other families' illnesses: Mallon had worked in their kitchens.

Ordered into quarantine by New York public health authorities in 1907, she was offered her freedom if doctors could remove her gallbladder, the locus of the disease, and if she would agree not to work as a cook. Initially she refused: As she saw it, how could she be the cause of other people's suffering when she wasn't sick? She rejected the doctors' explanation that someone could be asymptomatic and a disease carrier.

In 1910, she was released, only to change her name and go back to cooking. Again, families she worked for fell ill, until the authorities tracked her down in 1915. She was quarantined until her death, 23 years later. Her frequent name changes made it impossible to count the fatalities she caused — by some estimates upward of 50.

Why take the chance that a latter-day Mary Mallon has slipped through the airport screening protocol?

Obama and officials of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that quarantines and travel bans could increase the public's anxiety.

But what's wrong with running a little scared — as long as citizens sense their president is jogging alongside them? Consider two possible outcomes of cranking up precautions:

If the Ebola scare passes without many Americans being infected, people will shake their heads and say: "Isn't that just like the government to throw away millions of dollars needlessly?"

But — God forbid — the scare could become an epidemic that the government patently underestimated.

The president has a disquieting record in that respect: Only shortly before ordering the bombing of Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria, he dismissed the terrorists as "junior varsity." Presumably, al-Qaida was the first string.

Should that scenario be repeated, Americans won't have the solace Venetians had during their plague years — a sense that, for all their suffering, at least the government tried to do something, anything.

Ron Grossman is a Tribune reporter.

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