History teaches us that quarantines work

By Sally Crocker

Historical Walter Reed Hospital Web

The notion of COVID-19 social distancing may seem strange to many of us, but quarantines for the good of public health have been around since the Middle Ages and perhaps even earlier.

The practice of separating the sick to keep other populations well is a public health measure credited throughout history with saving lives and slowing the spread of deadly diseases.

“The word quarantine comes from an Italian phrase, quaranta giorni, meaning 40 days,” said Dr. Thad Miller, Associate Professor of Health Behavior and Health Systems at the HSC School of Public Health. “During the bubonic plague, ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor before landing, to keep them at bay until the time seemed safe.”

Ships were first required to stay offshore for a 30-day waiting period, and when the outcome wasn’t as effective as expected, the time was moved to 40 days.

Sailors and passengers who remained healthy by that time were presumed to be infection free and were permitted to dock.

“Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Some of the key cornerstones of public health are rooted in this notion of quarantine,” Dr. Miller said. “Even before the germ theory of disease was discovered, it was found that if we isolated people against infection, we could stop the spread and safeguard the health of those who had not been affected.”

During the 1918 Spanish Flu, long considered the deadliest pandemic in history, killing an estimated 30 million to 50 million people worldwide, social distancing was found to be the best way of flattening the curve of infection rates. There was a greater chance of keeping people healthy through temporary separation, history shows.

Health safety isolation measures taken since then, such as those initiated during the 2003 SARS epidemic and 2014 Ebola outbreak, further reinforce this idea.

Today, with much of society working from home and going out only for basic essentials, the World Health Organization continues to advise that the course of the current COVID-19 pandemic can be impacted if we all follow public health guidance.

“This centuries-old concept of quarantines to save lives is still one of the best things we have going in partnership with treatment and other prevention efforts, and every now and then we are reminded of the key role that public health plays,” Dr. Miller said.

With all eyes and ears fixed on evolving COVID-19 public health guidance right now, it seems the lessons of the past indeed have some very important bearing on the present.

“When public health is working well, it seems invisible,” Dr. Miller said. “But every now and then, in times like these, we are reminded of how important it is to our lives, and we gain a greater appreciation of its value. It’s really during the times of greatest need that public health moves to the forefront.”

Recent News

7281bfad 8597 4cef 80de B58ea8a26ab5
  • Community
|Jun 10, 2024

North Texas Asthma Summit to improve asthma outcomes for children

Representatives from 10 North Texas organizations will come together Wednesday with one common goal in mind: improving health outcomes for children with poorly controlled asthma. The goal of the North Texas Asthma Summit is to develop community partnerships to help these children who frequently e...
Dobbs Headshot
  • Our People
|Jun 7, 2024

School of Health Professions welcomes three new staff members

The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth’s School of Health Professions is excited to announce three new staff members in the dean’s office. Christa Lo, DHSc, MPAS, PA-C, joins SHP as associate dean. In her role, she will assist in overseeing the school’s academic...
Drwhite
  • Our People
|Jun 6, 2024

TCOM Alumnus Dr. Frederick White receives the Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Service from the AOCR

In recognition of his outstanding leadership, dedication and service, Frederick E. White, DO, FAOCR, a 1977 graduate from the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine at The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, was selected as the recipient of the American Osteopathic College ...
Hampton 5
  • On Campus
|Jun 5, 2024

Hampton University representatives visit HSC to build partnerships

A delegation of five representatives from Hampton University visited The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth’s campus on Friday. Hampton University is a private, historically Black university founded in 1868 in Hampton, Virginia. The group included President of Ham...