NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mandatory quarantines ordered by some U.S. states for doctors and nurses returning from West Africa’s Ebola outbreak are creating a “chilling effect” on aid work there, the humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders said on Thursday.
In response to questions from Reuters, the group said it was discussing whether to shorten some assignments as a result of restrictions imposed by several states since one of its American doctors, Craig Spencer, was hospitalized in New York City last week with the virus.
“There is rising anxiety and confusion among MSF staff members in the field over what they may face when they return home upon completion of their assignments in West Africa,” Sophie Delaunay, executive director of Doctors Without Borders in the United States, said in a statement emailed to Reuters.
Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF, is one of the main aid groups working in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where the worst Ebola outbreak on record has killed nearly 5,000 people.
Some MSF workers have been delaying their returns to the United States and are staying in Europe for 21 days, Ebola’s maximum incubation period, “in order to avoid facing rising stigmatization at home and possible quarantine,” Delaunay said.
As a result, MSF is discussing whether to shorten some Ebola assignments from their current duration of four to six weeks. Aid workers typically begin and end their assignments in Brussels, the Belgian capital, a spokesman said.
“Some people are being discouraged by their families from returning to the field,” Delaunay said.
The governors of New York and New Jersey announced strict new screening rules at airports last Friday, including mandatory 21-day quarantines for people who have had contact with Ebola patients in West Africa. People may be quarantined in their homes in some cases.
Last weekend, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration criticized the quarantining of healthy people as “not grounded in science,” echoing criticisms from public health experts.
Delaunay’s comments on Thursday are the most substantive criticism of the rules since they were announced, suggesting they are eroding MSF’s manpower and forcing American workers into temporary exile.
MSF says the policies have also created a misperception that healthcare workers are endangering the public, even though a person who does not have symptoms cannot spread the virus.
Delaunay sent her statement in response to questions from Reuters about whether returning MSF workers were rearranging travel plans to avoid U.S. states with mandatory quarantines.
She did not say how many workers were choosing to delay their return or whether MSF was paying to accommodate them. MSF had already made a policy of asking its workers not to return to their regular jobs for 21 days after finishing an Ebola assignment. It pays them wages for that time.
Only one person is known to have been ordered into quarantine as a result of the new rules announced by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Nurse Kaci Hickox, 33, was confined to a tent against her will for several days after arriving at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey last Friday, shortly before the new rules were announced. She had worked for MSF in Sierra Leone.
Hickox, who tested negative for Ebola and says she is completely healthy, has mounted a personal protest against the quarantine policy.
Three other MSF aid workers have returned to the United States since last Friday via one of five airports approved for passengers who have recently been in West Africa. Those workers have not been quarantined, an MSF spokesman said.
He would not say whether they had arrived at Newark, John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City or at airports in states that have not called for a blanket quarantine.
Press officials for Cuomo and Christie did not respond to a request for comment.
Delaunay, the MSF director, also said there were fears among its non-American workers that other countries may follow the example set by some U.S. states.
Additional reporting by Sharon Begley and Yasmeen Abutaleb in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio