New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Saturday said he’d be willing to quarantine Americans returning home from the summer Olympics in Brazil, where the Zika virus has been rampant, to prevent its spread in the US.
“You bet I would,” Christie said in response to a question about quarantines during the final GOP debate before the New Hampshire primary.
But one of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, Dr. Ben Carson, disagreed.
“Just willy-nilly going out and quarantining people because they’ve been to Brazil, I don’t think that’s going to work,” said Carson, a neurosurgeon.
Instead, Carson called for getting Zika under control by providing “appropriate support” to the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Zika virus, which is spreading rapidly through Latin America and has cropped up in a few places in the United States as well, typically causes only mild symptoms, such as rash and aches. But medical experts say the evidence is now quite strong that an infection during pregnancy can put a fetus at risk of the birth defect microcephaly, a condition that leaves infants with abnormally small heads and potential brain damage.
Zika has also been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition in which patients experience temporary and progressive paralysis. Most recover, but in some cases it’s fatal.
The World Health Organization has declared a global public health emergency because of Zika. But the WHO has not called for quarantining anyone who may have been exposed to the disease. In Zika-affected countries such as Colombia, pregnant women infected with the virus sometimes share rooms in the maternity wards with women who do not have Zika, with only a mosquito net to separate them.
There is no evidence the virus can be transmitted through casual contact, or through sneezes or coughs.
It is most often transmitted when a mosquito bites an infected person, then flies away and bites others, infecting them.
There is also emerging evidence that the virus can be sexually transmitted. The CDC advises men who have been infected with Zika to use condoms or abstain from sex if their partners are pregnant.
Read more: Zika shadows a maternity ward in Colombia
While it would in theory be possible to isolate patients showing signs of Zika virus, a quarantine of anyone returning from Brazil would be extremely difficult and likely unworkable. People infected with the virus often don’t show symptoms, and there’s no quick diagnostic test, so any quarantine meant to prevent the disease from spreading would have to cast an enormous net and round up everyone who’d had any exposure whatsoever to more than two dozen countries where the Zika virus has been spreading.
Impractical or not, Christie’s aggressive stance on Zika mirrors his response to the Ebola outbreak.
In the fall of 2014, during the height of the outbreak, Christie placed a nurse under quarantine after she landed in Newark after a stint treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone with the group Doctors Without Borders. New Jersey officials who carried out the quarantine said the nurse, Kaci Hickox, was running a fever. She said she was just tired and flushed from the long plane ride.
Medical experts criticized the move as unnecessary, but Hickox was held in a tent for three days before being allowed to return to her home state of Maine. She turned out not to have Ebola. Hickox later sued Christie in federal court, alleging she was unconstitutionally held against her will and deprived of due process.
Sunday’s exchange on Zika was not the first time Carson has stepped in during a presidential debate to offer his medical expertise.
Back in September, Carson said firmly that vaccines do not cause autism — and was almost immediately overshadowed by Donald Trump, who told an anecdote about a “beautiful child” who got a vaccine around age 2 and “now is autistic.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the target of Christie’s proposed quarantine.