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Typhoid carriers 'detained for life in asylum'

Monday, 28 July 2008

Many British people were locked up for life at a mental hospital because they were typhoid carriers, it was reported today.

At least 43 women were detained at Long Grove asylum in Epsom, Surrey, between 1907 and the facility's closure in 1992, according to the BBC.

Despite having recovered from the disease, they were held because they still carried the bacterium, deemed to be a public health risk, the corporation's Newsnight programme claims.

After antibiotic treatments emerged in the 1950s, the women continued to be detained but on mental health grounds, it is claimed.

All the women reportedly came from the London area, with three new carriers each year entering the asylum between 1944 and 1957.

Jeanie Kennett, a ward manager for 40 years at Long Grove, told the BBC that patients had a "basic existence".

She said: "They're somebody's loved ones, they're somebody's mother, or sister, everybody had forgotten about them - they were just locked away. Life was pretty tough; they were seen as objects, it was prison-like, everything was lock and key."

Responding to the report today, a spokesman for the Department of Health said: "There was not, and never has been, a policy of incarcerating anyone, in this context.

"There were long-standing powers under the 1984 Public Health Act (and legislation dating back to the 1880s) for a JP (justice of the peace, or magistrate) to order that someone be detained in a hospital if he is suffering from a notifiable disease, and if proper precautions against his infecting others would not be taken. Typhoid is a notifiable disease.

"The 1984 Act made provision for local authorities to approach JPs and request detention on public health grounds."

Most of the records from the hospital were destroyed after it shut down but historians at Surrey History Centre in Woking have found some relevant documents in Long Grove's ruins, the BBC said.

Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, told the BBC: "They (the detained women) certainly were infectious; they had the potential to spread the infection to others if they had poor hygiene and they were preparing food and all that type of thing. But as a public health risk, I think they were basically targeted and there was a lot of over-exaggeration about the threat they posed."

Typhoid fever is transmitted by the ingestion of food or water contaminated with faeces from an infected person.

The disease is characterised by a prolonged fever, as high as 40C, sweating, gastroenteritis, and diarrhoea.