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Special Communication
December 5, 2001

Large-Scale Quarantine Following Biological Terrorism in the United States: Scientific Examination, Logistic and Legal Limits, and Possible Consequences

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Institute for Crisis and Disaster Management, George Washington University (Dr Barbera), and Department of Emergency Medicine, George Washington University Medical Center (Dr Macintyre and Mr DeAtley), Washington, DC; Center for Law & the Public's Health, Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University (Dr Gostin), and Center for Civilian Biodefense, Johns Hopkins University (Drs Inglesby and O'Toole), Baltimore, Md; Office of Emergency Preparedness, Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, Md (Dr Tonat); and Department of Public Health, New York, NY (Dr Layton).

JAMA. 2001;286(21):2711-2717. doi:10.1001/jama.286.21.2711

Concern for potential bioterrorist attacks causing mass casualties has increased recently. Particular attention has been paid to scenarios in which a biological agent capable of person-to-person transmission, such as smallpox, is intentionally released among civilians. Multiple public health interventions are possible to effect disease containment in this context. One disease control measure that has been regularly proposed in various settings is the imposition of large-scale or geographic quarantine on the potentially exposed population. Although large-scale quarantine has not been implemented in recent US history, it has been used on a small scale in biological hoaxes, and it has been invoked in federally sponsored bioterrorism exercises. This article reviews the scientific principles that are relevant to the likely effectiveness of quarantine, the logistic barriers to its implementation, legal issues that a large-scale quarantine raises, and possible adverse consequences that might result from quarantine action. Imposition of large-scale quarantine—compulsory sequestration of groups of possibly exposed persons or human confinement within certain geographic areas to prevent spread of contagious disease—should not be considered a primary public health strategy in most imaginable circumstances. In the majority of contexts, other less extreme public health actions are likely to be more effective and create fewer unintended adverse consequences than quarantine. Actions and areas for future research, policy development, and response planning efforts are provided.

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