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  • Article: Cruise ships, plague ships, and high-tech quarantine. By Susan Willis McFadden

    Cruise ships, plague ships, and high-tech quarantine


    The BBC recently reported that a British cruise ship, nearly one-third of whose 919 passengers were suffering from the vomiting bug norovirus, docked in the United States after having been denied landing in Bermuda. The Balmoral is only the most recent on a long list of ships to have arrived on America’s shores with a cargo of desperately ill passengers.

    In the 19th century the crossing from Europe to America was notoriously difficult, and the people on board, many of them immigrants, often travelled in cramped conditions which encouraged the spread of disease. Cholera, typically caused by contaminated water, was a particularly common affliction. In November 1853 alone, 28 emigrant ships sailing to New York from Europe were struck with cholera. Newspapers in both the US and UK published lists of afflicted ships, stating their port of origin, length of the crossing, number of passengers and number of fatalities from cholera; some ships were literally decimated by the illness. Before the development of germ theory, it was believed that cholera was transmitted by noxious air emanating from the diseased, and in June 1832 New York decreed that any ship with cholera on board could come no closer than 300 yards to any dock. Over the course of the century, additional legislation was passed to enforce quarantines of ships with ill passengers.

    Because immigrant ships were so often affected by cholera, outbreaks of the disease in America were often blamed on the immigrants themselves. Certainly cholera and other diseases often had a disproportionate impact on immigrant populations, largely due to the fact that immigrants often lived in the cheapest and most overcrowded parts of town with limited access to sanitation. There were those who portrayed cholera as the Christian God’s way of punishing non-believers and who blamed non-Christian immigrants for bringing the disease from India. Political cartoons concerning the arrival of cholera in the United States sometimes depict the illness as a skeletal figure wearing non-Western clothes such as robes or a fez.

    In 1893, following a particularly savage cholera outbreak, Congress passed the National Quarantine Act, which created a national (as opposed to state-based) quarantine system, and in 1963 the federal government gave control over quarantine to the body now known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC now operates 20 quarantine stations around the country.

    Cholera is fortunately very rare in the US these days, but it remains on the list of quarantinable diseases along with tuberculosis and SARS, the latter having been added in 2014. Persons suffering from communicable diseases determined by the CDC to be ‘of public health significance’ are still ineligible for visas and for admission to the US. Section 2007(a) of the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act of 1993 defined HIV positive status as such a disease, but that provision was removed in 2008.

    Technology now makes it possible to avoid the need to quarantine ill travellers in the US by preventing them from boarding aircraft to or within the United States. Persons whose exposure to one of a number of communicable diseases that would pose a public health threat to other travellers can now be placed on the ‘Do Not Board’ list administered by the Department of Homeland Security, barring the airline from issuing a boarding pass to the affected person. Instead of languishing in a quarantine station in the US, the would-be traveller is kept at what is hoped will be a safe distance, consistent with the desire to ‘push our homeland security out beyond our borders so that we are not defending the homeland from the one-yard line.’

    © Susan Willis McFadden 2016. Reprinted with permission.

    About The Author

    Susan Willis McFadden, a graduate of Stanford Law School and member of the State Bar of Arizona, is the managing attorney of Gudeon & McFadden, a US immigration law practice in London, England. She would like to thank researcher Julia Trocmé-Latter (BA, MA and MPhil Cantab) for her assistance with this article.

    The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Retired INS's Avatar
      Retired INS -
      You failed to mention that the Act of 1819, which took effect in 1820, required sufficient food, water and space for passenger. Incidents of disease dropped dramatically compared to ships destined to Canada, which had no such law.
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