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A Brief History of Quarantine

Quarantine is one term that had gained significant momentum in the past two years,courtesy the pandemic.In fact, the Cambridge Dictionary had named the word “Quarantine” as ‘The Word of the Year’ in 2020 following data which suggested it to be the most searched word in that year! But to tell the truth,quarantine had been in effect since the fourteenth century itself!

What does it mean to be quarantined?

The word originates from the Italian word “quarantena” which translates to ‘forty days’ in the Venetian language.The word was used to denote that period when all the ships were required to be isolated before passengers and crew could go ashore during the times of Plague.As such,quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people,animals and goods exposed to a contagious disease for a period of time considered to be infective enough.

What is the difference between ‘Quarantine’ and ‘Isolation’?

Quarantine refers to separation of apparently healthy individuals while isolation refers to separation of sick individuals with contagious diseases.

I aim to provide you with a historical perspective of quarantine through the ages which I am sure to evoke in you a sense of better understanding of the evolution of health.

Plague (Black Death)

Organised institutional responses towards quarantine started during the plague pandemic in 14th century.The plague was initially spread by the sailors and rats also played a major role.Medications were powerless.The only way out was to avoid contact with infected people and contaminated objects.Thus came quarantine.

Quarantine was first introduced in the year 1377 in Croatia with the first plague hospital opened by the Republic of Venice in 1423.It was called lazaretto or Lazarethum because of the resemblance of the word to the biblical character Lazarus who was believed to have a infectious disease.Where possible, lazarettos were located so that a natural barrier, such as the sea or a river, separated them from the city.

It is not understood why 40 days were selected for quarantine then but thought to be due to the significance of number 4 such as: Forty days was Jesus’ travel in the desert. Forty days were believed to represent the time necessary for dissipating the remains from bodies and goods through the system of isolation, fumigation, and disinfection.

The first English quarantine regulations for plague came to force in 1663.

Yellow Fever

In ports in North America, quarantine was introduced to control yellow fever, which first appeared in New York and Boston in 1688 and 1691, respectively.By 18th century, the appearance of yellow fever in Mediterranean ports of France, Spain, and Italy forced governments to introduce new quarantine rules.


Cholera announced its arrival in the 19th century AD.Widely believed to have Asiatic origins,the dosease became rampant in the 1830s in Europe and America.The initial strategies employed for plague control seemed ineffective.Government took steps to prevent the free movement of beggars and prostitutes considering them to be active carriers.

Influenza outbreaks

The 1918 Influenza pandemic that hit the world during the first World War dealt a severe blow to the already weakened health system internationally.Disease-containment strategies such as mass closure of schools,theatres and churches were carried out.Respiratory hygiene and social distancing were advocated on a large scale resembling the present COVID outbreaks.

The second influenza pandemic struck in 1957-58.However this time,the nations were better equipped compared to its predecessor having identified the causative organism and advent of antibiotics.This was followed by the third and final Influenza pandemic in 1968-69 which by far has been the mildest.

SARS(Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)

SARS originated in China in 2003 and was primarily air-borne.It emerged as a global threat due to several factors-high mortality rate,rapid transmission,lack of effective antiviral drugs and vaccines.As expected,some of the restrictions forcefully imposed lead to stigmatizations and subsequent protests in some nations as a pandemic situation was new to the current generation.


And then came COVID-19 or Corona Virus-a pandemic that shook the entire world quite unexpectedly.This virus also originated in China in the Wuhan province.Initially,it appeared that there happened a cluster of pneumonia cases only.Most of these patients had visited a seafood market where other wildlife species were also sold.On January 30,2021,the World Health Organization(WHO) declared covid as a public health emergency as the death toll rose above 200 and cases skyrocketed to nearly 10,000.The global air travel got restricted soon enough and within months after the first case,China ‘s covid deaths exceeded those of SARS times.On March 11,WHO declared covid officially as a pandemic.Since then,the novel Corona virus has wreaked havoc toppling many healthcare systems allover the world. Nations desperately tried to curb the transmission of virus and the entire world came to a standstill as lockdowns became the common norm across the nations.

Several variants of the corona virus emerged,emergence of each one of them triggering new outbreaks and multiple waves.Social distancing,face protection with masks and hand hygiene became the rule and people suspected to be in contact with infected individuals were quarantined.

After trials came the vaccines which were highly effective after two shots in curbing the severity of illness and person to person transmission to an extent.Now as we are in the third year of covid infection,the pandemic has become milder as happened with the influenza pandemic also but its still not yet time to let go off the safety harnesses.

In short....

The history of quarantines and its evolution through the centuries is a fascinating read and of great utility to preventive medicine.Quarantines have helped in checking the spread of disease from an infected individual to a susceptible individual.They have caused enough trouble and unrest when it came to interpersonal communications but was a necessary evil in the face of a health threat.Each of these diseases were associated with social stigma and fake informations and hearsays as well as resistance from the public for the successful implementation of barriers towards their prevention.It can’t be overstressed that effective implementation of preventive measures would not occur without insights from the past!

This post is part of #BlogchatterA2Z

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