My experience of self-isolation during an outbreak


Andrew O’Brien recalls when German measles hit his boarding school in Australia

Andrew O'Brien

Well, that escalated quickly. It seems only a few weeks ago the coronavirus was nothing more than the subject of a few internet jokes and now. Now, here we are with St Patrick’s day called off, schools, colleges and nursing homes on lockdown and everyone’s holiday plans in disarray. On the positive side, at time of writing, the number of people waiting on trolleys had fallen dramatically in the last week. Which begs the question; are people avoiding hospitals out of fear?
Government sources and media outlets are telling us there’s no need to panic, but being sure to tell us every hour, on the hour, making it very hard not to panic a little.
As usual, everyone who is anyone is being asked for their take on the situation, regardless of their qualifications. So, it was refreshing to see Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp suggest to a reporter that his opinion on coronavirus was irrelevant. As a friend of mine says, opinions are like backsides, everyone has one, but not everyone wants to hear it.
With that in mind, I’m not going to launch into any advice, other than to suggest that you follow the advice of the experts, not some bloke on Facebook or, indeed, the manager of your favourite football team.
Instead, I’m going to relate my own experience of self-isolation during an infectious disease outbreak.
Growing up in Australia, I went to boarding school for secondary school. Not, as some might assume, because I was a difficult child, but because our local high school was pretty small and didn’t offer a full range of subjects. The nearest decent-sized secondary school was 100km from our home, and there were no public transport options to get there. Thus, my sisters and I (and most of our cousins and classmates besides), were shipped off to boarding school in Sydney, some 500km away.
In my second-to-last year in boarding school, there was an outbreak of German measles in the boarding house. Like the coronavirus, it seemed to spread slowly at first, then like wildfire.
The first few cases were quarantined in the school infirmary, but with only ten or so beds, it filled pretty quickly. Then an old dormitory was re-opened and the next dozen or so victims were housed there.
It seemed all was under control for a few days and that the boarding house wouldn’t have to be closed, until I woke one Sunday morning with the tell-tale rash. I would have to be isolated for two weeks, but – given that there were no more beds into which I could be moved – a decision had to be made as to where.
Fortunately for me, there were exactly two weeks until our next school holidays and a friend’s father happened to be in Sydney that weekend. He’d had measles himself and so was happy to give me a lift home. Thus, my bag was packed and thrown into the back of his pick-up truck before I could spread any more germs, and off we went.
I honestly don’t remember, but I doubt it even crossed our minds that I shouldn’t go into the McDonald’s we stopped at for lunch. Not that it would have mattered, because by the time we got home and I’d had a night’s sleep, the rash was gone and there was no sign of measles, German or otherwise. To this day, nobody really knows if I actually had the measles or just a heat rash. Either way, I spent two weeks on a motorbike helping my dad with farm work and everyone was happy.
Taking off for the bush, where there is nobody else to infect, probably isn’t an option for most people in Mayo. Especially given that the three flights that would be required to get to that little corner of Australia go somewhat against the isolation concept.
Forgetting for now about isolation, let’s concentrate on prevention. Wash your hands properly. Sneeze into a tissue (and bin the tissue) or your elbow if you don’t have a tissue. Stay away from vulnerable people if you’re ill, and follow the most up-to-date advice from the HSE and Department of Health by checking their websites.

Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at