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Fast Facts: Quarantine Comes from the Maritime Industry

After becoming very familiar with the term quarantine in recent years, it’s strange to think that the 14th-century term was originally derived from the maritime industry. 


According to the CDC, the practice of quarantine, as we know it, began during the 14th century as an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. For example, ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. This practice, called quarantine, was derived from the Italian term quaranta giorni, which means 40 days.


When the United States was first established, little was done to prevent the importation of infectious diseases. Protection against imported diseases fell under local and state jurisdiction. Individual municipalities enacted an assortment of quarantine regulations for arriving vessels.


State and local governments periodically made attempts to set quarantine requirements. However, continued outbreaks of yellow fever finally prompted Congress to pass federal quarantine legislation in 1878. While not conflicting with states’ rights, this legislation paved the way for federal involvement in quarantine activities.


Outbreaks of cholera from passenger ships arriving from Europe evoked a reinterpretation of the law in 1892 to give the federal government more control over authorizing quarantine requirements. The following year, Congress passed legislation clarifying the federal role in quarantine activities. As local authorities realized the benefits of federal involvement, local quarantine stations were gradually turned over to the federal government. Additional federal facilities were built, and the number of staff was increased to provide better coverage. The quarantine system was fully nationalized by 1921 when the administration of the last quarantine station was transferred to the federal government.


After evaluating the quarantine program and its role in preventing disease transmission, the CDC pruned the program in the 1970s. It changed its focus from routine inspection to program management and intervention. The new direction included an enhanced surveillance system to monitor the onset of epidemics abroad and a modernized inspection process to meet the changing needs of international traffic.


By 1995, all U.S. ports of entry were covered by only seven quarantine stations. A station was added in 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia, just before the city hosted the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Following the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003, CDC reorganized the quarantine station system, expanding to 18 stations with more than 90 field employees.

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