US quarantining of doctors, nurses having ‘chilling’ effect on Ebola fight

Doctors Without Borders warning comes as Maine court rules to ease confinement of nurse returning from Sierra Leone

Mandatory quarantines imposed by some U.S. states on doctors and nurses returning from Ebola-ravaged countries have created a "chilling effect" on aid work in West Africa, the humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has warned.

The medical charity said restrictions imposed by several states have prompted it to discuss whether to shorten deployments.

It comes as one of its volunteer nurses, Kaci Hickox, seemingly won a court battle to have conditions aimed at confining her to her home eased.

The 33-year-old nurse had issued a challenge to officials in Maine by defying a state-imposed quarantine by leaving her house for a bike ride with her boyfriend Thursday. She contended that the order was not based on science as she had displayed no symptoms of Ebola and tested negative for the virus.

The state of Maine responded Friday, asking a court to restrict Hickox's movements. But a judge ruled that although Hickox must continue daily monitoring and coordinate travel with state officials, there was no need for further restrictions as she is not infectious.

MSF has warned that such moves may deter other health care professionals from volunteering their services.

"There is rising anxiety and confusion among [MSF] staff members in the field over what they may face when they return home upon completion of their assignments in West Africa," Sophie Delaunay, the organization’s executive director in the United States, said in a statement.

MSF is one of the main aid groups working in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where the worst Ebola outbreak on record has killed nearly 5,000 people.

Some DWB workers have been delaying their returns to the U.S. and are staying in Europe for 21 days, Ebola's maximum incubation period, "in order to avoid facing rising stigmatization at home and possible quarantine," Delaunay said.

As a result, MSF is discussing whether to shorten some Ebola assignments from their current duration of four to six weeks. Its workers typically begin and end their assignments in Brussels, the Belgian capital, a DWB spokesman said.

"Some people are being discouraged by their families from returning to the field," Delaunay said.

The governors of New York and New Jersey announced strict new screening rules at airports last Friday, including mandatory 21-day quarantines for people who have had contact with Ebola patients in West Africa.

People may be quarantined in their homes in some cases, such as Hickox’s. Her plight underscores how the U.S. is struggling to balance protections against the virus’ spread with upholding civil rights.

Last weekend President Barack Obama's administration criticized the quarantining of healthy people as "not grounded in science," echoing criticisms from public health experts.

Delaunay's comments on Thursday are the most substantive criticism of the rules since they were announced, suggesting they are eroding MSF's manpower and forcing American workers into temporary exile.

DWB says the policies have also created a misperception that health care workers are endangering the public, even though a person who does not have symptoms cannot spread the virus.

Delaunay did not say how many workers were choosing to delay their return or whether MSF was paying for their accommodations. MSF already made a policy of asking its workers not to return to their regular jobs for 21 days after finishing an Ebola assignment. It pays them wages for that time.

Three other MSF aid workers have returned to the U.S. since last Friday via one of five airports approved for passengers who have recently been in West Africa. Those workers have not been quarantined, a DWB spokesman said.

Delaunay would not say if they arrived at Newark, John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City or at airports in states that have not called for a blanket quarantine.

Press officials for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did not respond to a request for comment.

Delaunay also said there were fears among its non-American workers that other countries may follow the example set by some U.S. states.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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