WASHINGTON/SYDNEY - The US military has started isolating soldiers returning from an Ebola response mission in West Africa and Australia became the first rich nation to impose a visa ban on the affected countries amid global anxiety about the spread of the virus.
The latest measures, along with decisions by some US states to impose mandatory quarantines on health workers returning home from treating Ebola victims in West Africa, have been condemned by health authorities and the United Nations as extreme.
The top health official in charge of dealing with Washington's response to Ebola warned against turning doctors and nurses who travel to West Africa to tackle Ebola into "pariahs".
The Ebola outbreak has killed nearly 5,000 people since March, the vast majority in West Africa, but nine Ebola cases in the United States have caused alarm, and states such as New York and New Jersey have ignored federal advice by introducing their own strict controls.
The United Nations on Monday sharply criticised the new restrictions imposed by some US states on health workers returning home from the affected West African states of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
"Returning health workers are exceptional people who are giving of themselves for humanity," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said. "They should not be subjected to restrictions that are not based on science. Those who develop infections should be supported, not stigmatised."
American soldiers returning from West Africa are also being isolated, even though they showed no symptoms of infection and were not believed to have been exposed to the deadly virus, officials said on Monday.
In a statement, the Army said Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno ordered the 21-day monitoring period for returning soldiers "to ensure soldiers, family members and their surrounding communities are confident that we are taking all steps necessary to protect their health."
The Army isolated about a dozen soldiers on their return during the weekend to their home base in Vicenza, Italy. That included Major General Darryl Williams, the commander of US Army Africa, who oversaw the military's initial response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
"We are billeted in a separate area (on the base). There's no contact with the general population or with family. No one will be walking around Vicenza," Williams told Reuters in a telephone interview.
The US military has repeatedly stressed that its personnel are not interacting with Ebola patients and are instead building treatment units to help health authorities battle the epidemic. Up to 4,000 US troops may be deployed on the mission.
"From a public health perspective, we would not feel that isolation is appropriate," said Dr. Jeff Duchin, Washington State epidemiologist and chairman of the public health committee of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
The decision goes well beyond previously established military protocols and came just as President Barack Obama's administration sought to discourage precautionary quarantines being imposed by some US states on healthcare workers returning from countries battling Ebola.