WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Barack Obama on Wednesday hailed "heroic" US health workers battling Ebola, seeking to reassure the public amid controversy over quarantine measures imposed by some authorities including the Pentagon.
Speaking at the White House after meeting with returned health workers including Kent Brantly, an American doctor infected with the often-deadly disease in Liberia, Obama said those who volunteer on the front lines should be applauded for their service.
"We need to call them what they are, which is American heroes," Obama said.
"They deserve our gratitude, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and with respect," he said, adding that it was in America's interests to stop Ebola at its source.
The US leader's remarks followed raging controversy about measures taken by officials in New Jersey and New York to quarantine individuals returning from treating Ebola-infected patients in West Africa.
A nurse from Maine was placed in isolation at a Newark medical facility after returning from West Africa, before being released on Monday after threatening to sue authorities.
California on Wednesday became the latest state to announce quarantine rules, declaring that individuals returning to the state from the worst-hit areas who had come into close contact with an infected person would need to be quarantined.
Experts say quarantining medical professionals who have shown no symptoms of the disease is counter-productive and could deter other US workers from heading to the frontlines of the Ebola crisis.
- 'Fear, hysteria' -
Warning against "fear, hysteria and misinformation," Obama did not directly mention the measures taken by individual states that have stoked controversy. Instead he defended "sensible, scientific" guidelines set out by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday.
The CDC has urged active monitoring of those at risk, meaning they must be checked for fever daily for 21 days and must restrict their travel and public activities for the duration of the virus's incubation period.
"We have to keep in mind that if we're discouraging our health care workers, who are prepared to make these sacrifices, from traveling to these places in need, then we're not doing our job in terms of looking after our own public health and safety," Obama said.
"We can't discourage that; we've got to encourage it and applaud it," he added, noting that America could not "hermetically seal" itself off from Ebola.
Yet Obama's remarks came as the Pentagon on Wednesday ordered a 21-day quarantine for all troops returning from West Africa, reflecting a split between government agencies. The Pentagon cited "an abundance of caution" for its decision to impose a three-week quarantine on soldiers returning from Liberia and Senegal.
But the move contradicted the policy outlined by the Obama administration's top health officials. And the State Department said it had no similar plan for a quarantine on diplomats returning from West Africa.
In what Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel called a "prudent" measure, the order directed all branches of the military to place troops arriving back from West Africa in isolation for three weeks. The quarantine was introduced even though officials say the soldiers will be focused on building medical clinics or training and will have no contact with those infected.
But Hagel said the decision was taken partly because military families urged the quarantine. The US Army had already ordered a quarantine for its troops coming back from Liberia. Hagel's order extended the measure across the military.
There are now about 1,100 US troops in Liberia and Senegal, with plans to boost the force to as many as 4,000 soldiers. Only two people have been infected with the virus on US soil, and both have been declared cured.
The one patient who has died of Ebola in a US hospital was a Liberian, Thomas Eric Duncan. Another patient, American doctor Craig Spencer, is still being treated for the virus at Bellevue Hospital in New York. Spencer had treated Ebola patients in Guinea.