West African governments employ century-old method of controlling Ebola

The "cordon sanitaire" involves drawing a border around the infected area, and not letting anyone leave

Published August 13, 2014 1:47PM (EDT)

Scanning electron microscopic image of Ebola virions                                                         (Public Library of Science)
Scanning electron microscopic image of Ebola virions (Public Library of Science)

As the Ebola outbreak continues to spread, West African governments have begun to employ a method of preventing the spread of Ebola that has not been used in a century, called the "cordon sanitaire." The method involves drawing a line around the infected area and not allowing anyone to come in or go out.

The New York Times' Donald G. McNeil Jr. has more:

Cordons, common in the medieval era of the Black Death, have not been seen since the border between Poland and Russia was closed in 1918 to stop typhus from spreading west. They have the potential to become brutal and inhumane. Centuries ago, in their most extreme form, everyone within the boundaries was left to die or survive, until the outbreak ended.

Plans for the new cordon were announced on Aug. 1 at an emergency meeting in Conakry, Guinea, of the Mano River Union, a regional association of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the three countries hardest hit by Ebola, according to Agence France-Presse. The plan was to isolate a triangular area where the three countries meet, separated only by porous borders, and where 70 percent of the cases known at that time had been found.

Troops began closing internal roads in Liberia and Sierra Leone last week.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's chief quarantine expert Dr. Martin S. Cetron thinks the method could be successful, "but it has a lot of potential to go poorly if it's not done with an ethical approach," he said. "Just letting the disease burn out and considering that the price of controlling it -- we don't live in that era anymore. And as soon as cases are under control, one should dial back the restrictions."

Meanwhile, Nigerian officials scramble to control the outbreak in its most populous city, Lagos, after the first infected Nigerian, Patrick Sawyer, brought the disease to the country when he collapsed at Lagos' airport. As Nigeria does have a much more developed health system than other West African countries struck with the virus, the city is crowded and almost invites the spread of Ebola.

"Lagos is big, it's crowded. It would make in many ways a perfect environment for the virus to spread," said Chikwe Ihekweazu, a Nigerian epidemiologist who runs the website Nigeria Health Watch. "In the heart of Lagos, people live on top of each other, sharing bedrooms and toilets. In densely populated communities infection control becomes almost impossible to do well."

More on the topic:

  • Ebola survivors face fear from their communities and are often unable to reconnect with family members and loved ones after being released from quarantine.
  • A third Nigerian has died of Ebola. Jatto Asihu Abdulqudir, 36, was an assistant traveling to an Ecowas event when Abdulqudir was put under quarantine for the disease.
  • West African burial practices, which involve touching the bodies, may be exacerbating the spread of Ebola.
  • Kenya is vulnerable to the outbreak, says a WHO official, because it is a major transport hub.
  • The BBC and Forbes have fascinating pieces on visualizing Ebola.
  • The husband of infected American missionary Nancy Writebol has been quarantined in North Carolina.

By Joanna Rothkopf

MORE FROM Joanna Rothkopf

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cordon Sanitaire Ebola Nigeria West Africa