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Returning Ebola workers shouldn't be treated like "criminals and prisoners"

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Kaci Hickox is a nurse with Doctors Without Borders who was treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. She has spent the past months, in her words, "watching children die, alone." She returned to the United States through New Jersey on Friday — the same day that the state, alongside New York, instituted a mandatory quarantine for all returning Ebola health workers.

The quarantine came after Craig Spencer, also with Doctors Without Borders, tested positive for Ebola in New York City on Thursday. While there is no evidence Spencer broke protocol and put others at risk, he did go bowling on Wednesday night — and his outing led to cries for mandatory health worker quarantines.

Hickox has spent her weeks doing absolutely essentially and incredibly trying work. She describes her last night at an Ebola treatment center in Sierra Leone, watching a 10-year-old girl die, alone. "I  coaxed crushed tablets of Tylenol and an anti-seizure medicine into her mouth as her body jolted in the bed," she writes in a piece for the Dallas Morning News. "It was the hardest night of my life. I watched a young girl die in a tent, away from her family."

We desperately need many more nurses and doctors like her if we're ever going to have a shot at controlling the Ebola outbreak in West Africa — something that needs to happen to stop more cases from coming to the United States.

This is the welcome she received upon landing on American soil, also in the Morning News:

Eight police cars escorted me to the University Hospital in Newark. Sirens blared, lights flashed. Again, I wondered what I had done wrong.

I had spent a month watching children die, alone. I had witnessed human tragedy unfold before my eyes. I had tried to help when much of the world has looked on and done nothing.

At the hospital, I was escorted to a tent that sat outside of the building. The infectious disease and emergency department doctors took my temperature and other vitals and looked puzzled. "Your temperature is 98.6," they said. "You don't have a fever but we were told you had a fever."

After my temperature was recorded as 98.6 on the oral thermometer, the doctor decided to see what the forehead scanner records. It read 101. The doctor felts my neck and looked at the temperature again. "There's no way you have a fever," he said. "Your face is just flushed."

My blood was taken and tested for Ebola. It came back negative.

I sat alone in the isolation tent and thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal. Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?

Hickox's entire article is available here, and certainly worth reading. It shows that quarantines are not harmless precautions. There is a very real possibility they could have a chilling effect on other workers considering travel to West Africa to help fight the epidemic. And they send the exact wrong message to those who are doing the right thing: helping stop a deadly, out-of-control disease from spreading further.