The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues concluded that policies such as travel curbs or quarantine should be based on science and use the least restrictive means necessary.
WASHINGTON — Attempts to quarantine health workers returning from Ebola-stricken West Africa were a mistake, the president’s bioethics advisers said Thursday.
The U.S. has a moral responsibility and a self-interest to help fight public-health emergencies worldwide, said the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.
The panel examined the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak that devastated Liberia, Sierra Leona and Guinea in the past year.
It concluded the nation must improve its health infrastructure and emergency response to be ready to act quickly in the next major disease outbreak, and it urged that ethics expertise be part of that planning.
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“Make sure we learn from history,” said University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, who chairs the commission.
Among the most controversial questions last year was whether to quarantine health workers and others who arrived in the U.S. from the outbreak zones and had no symptoms.
Ebola isn’t contagious until symptoms arise, and federal health officials recommended daily monitoring for fever during the virus’ incubation period.
Yet several states last fall attempted to impose quarantines instead, responding to public panic.
Nurse Kaci Hickox made headlines fighting the measures when she flew back to the U.S., only to be sequestered in a medical tent for several days in New Jersey, then discharged to her home in Maine.
The bioethics panel heard testimony that worry about quarantine deterred health workers from volunteering to help — and concluded that policies such as travel curbs or quarantine should be based on science and use the least restrictive means necessary.
“Needlessly restricting the freedom of expert and caring health workers is both morally wrong and counterproductive,” Gutmann said.
The panel also recommended that:
• A single U.S. health official be placed in charge of coordinating the government response to health emergencies.
• Health officials communicate early, often and clearly, to explain the rationale behind health policies to a frightened public.
• The quest for Ebola vaccines continue with urgency.