In 1898, when war with Spain was coming, there was a wave of press hysteria much like the press and (especially) television and radio hysteria we have enjoyed regarding the threat of Ebola coming into America. Back then, mayors of East Coast cities were panicked that the navy of Spain was going to bombard their harbors.
Each mayor demanded that the American navy station a battleship at his port, to protect the citizens. If this sounds exactly like, to take one example among many, Maine Gov. Paul LePage, that's exactly what it was like.
Never mind that if a Spanish fleet showed up, one battleship would not offer much resistance, nor that the proper use of a fleet is as a fleet, a powerful force that can dominate all the waters, not just one port. The American admirals, who were trying to concentrate their fleet somewhere near Cuba, were driven nuts by the amateur naval strategists, just as the communicable disease specialists today are being driven nuts by the instant experts (like Sarah Palin) who only want what's common sense protections for our vulnerable citizens. Lest anybody think I am picking on rightwing creeps (although I am), the Democratic prettyboy governor of New York, Cuomo, has been as bad (although the leftie mayor of New York City, DiBlasio, has demonstrated maturity and judgment that is hard to find elsewhere).
Anyhow, it all blew over and the fearsome Spanish navy was sunk (a topic we will have to return to later for historical revisionism).
|Fearsome Spanish battleship, Reina Mercedes, with her sails furled|
So there. The first step in public health is threat assessment. The CDC correctly evaluated the threat but misjudged, at first, the level of practice necessary to become skilled at dealing with it. Paderewski practiced the piano every day, whether he needed to or not.
It took a few days and only two tries to get up to speed, so nothing to worry about.
Now, let's examine both issues a little more deeply.
As a matter of fact, the United States Navy in 1898 was thoroughly incompetent and could have defeated only 2 other navies, Spain's and China's. Spain had only 2 modern ships and these had not had their guns mounted. China had good ships (bought from England) but crooked contractors had sold its navy shells filled with charcoal, cement and porcelain instead of gunpowder.
At the Battles of the Yalu (1894), Manila Bay and Santiago (1898), the Chinese and Spanish sailors fought with great courage but no hope. If you suspect the situation was much as it is today with the Iraq government that the United States created and continues to support, you are exactly right.
As to quarantines, it is incorrect to say -- as some of the people trying to douse the Ebola panic are saying -- that they cannot work. Sometimes they have been useful.
In the early 1970s, when cholera was introduced into West Africa (probably from south Russia), the international medical advisers thought that quarantines were hopeless and recommended something rather like the Doctors without Borders responses today: public awareness campaigns, changes in everyday behavior, isolation, treatment, prophylaxis.
The health director of one of the newly independent states set up a quarantine along his border. The white American and European advisers scoffed but the barrier held for seceral weeks, buying enough time for his nation to prepare. (I no longer recall which country that was, but a young American doctor, Pascal James Imperato, told the story in a series of articles in Natural History magazine.)
It does not follow that the quarantines being set up in Maine, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Canada and other backward places make sense today.
UPDATE: This is worth reading. Nut graf:
But why stay here when he was no longer sick? Isolation in a hospital is for sick people; quarantine is for people who have no symptoms but could be incubating a disease.