First Confirmed Ebola Case in U.S. Leads to Air Travel Ban Debate

Recent public health concerns over the Ebola outbreak in parts of Africa have led to heated debates and finger pointing in the United States between the two reigning political parties. The death of Thomas Duncan, who flew from his homeland of Liberia to the U.S., before succumbing to Ebola in a Dallas hospital less than two weeks later, has left many in this country fearful. Polls show that roughly two-thirds of Americans classify themselves as “very” or “somewhat” concerned about an Ebola outbreak in the United States, and a vast majority support restrictions on travelers entering this country from the regions in West Africa most affected by the epidemic. [See Two Thirds of Americans Worried About Possible Widespread Epidemic in U.S., by Brady Dennis and Peyton Craighill, The Washington Post, 14.Oct.2014.]

Some politicians are calling for an outright ban on travelers from countries with Ebola outbreaks, citing public safety concerns. But, most health experts agree that such a draconian measure is not only unnecessary, it actually could impede efforts to control the spread of the disease. Of the more than 275,000 international travelers who pass through U.S. airports every day, only about 150 – or less than 0.1 percent – are from Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone, the countries with the highest rates of Ebola. These three African nations conduct their own screening of outward-bound travelers. Further, the Obama administration has moved to quell fears by instituting screening procedures at five major international airports in the U.S. Travelers from affected countries are being subjected to temperature-checks and questioned by airport workers upon arrival to the United States. If such a traveler is found to have a fever, the individual is placed under immediate quarantine and evaluated by officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). American health officials acknowledge that Duncan did not have a fever upon his landing in the United States, and therefore would likely not have been quarantined under the current screening process. Even so, the consensus among leading health professionals seems to be that “we have a much larger outbreak of anxiety than we have of Ebola.” [See Newly Vigilant U.S. is to Screen Fliers for Ebola, by Sabrina Tavernise, The New York Times, 8.Oct.2014.]

A ban may also discourage American emergency aid workers from entering Ebola-ravaged nations to administer treatment and medical supplies, as this would raise the possibility that these workers would then have trouble returning to the United States. As the director of the CDC, Tom Frieden, explained, “[t]he way we’re going to reduce risk to Americans is to…stop Ebola at the source in Africa. If we do things that unintentionally make it harder to get that response in…[it will] become much harder to stop the outbreak at the source.” Moreover, the Bush administration commissioned extensive studies during the early 2000s at the height of the avian flu epidemic in Asia to determine if an air travel ban could help prevent a U.S. outbreak of an infectious disease. The studies concluded that a ban would be ineffective and most likely interfere with the movement of vital health personnel and supplies. [See CDC Dismisses Travel Ban On Ebola Nations After New Case, by Mark Drajem, Bloomberg, 13.Oct.2014.]

While the Ebola crisis in West Africa has many Americans understandably concerned about a domestic epidemic, we need to maintain a sense of perspective about the limited risk of an outbreak. Allowing our anxieties to overcome our common sense could potentially lead to an unnecessary travel ban that would at best be ineffective, and at worst have dangerous consequences.

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