8:53 pm - Tuesday November 3, 2015

Experts Oppose Ebola Travel Ban, Saying It Would Cut Off Worst-Hit Countries

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A volunteer health worker practises using a PPE suit at a newly-constructed Ebola virus treatment centre in Monrovia, Liberia

Fear of Ebola is spreading faster than the disease itself, and the growing paranoia in the United States is fueling calls to impose a travel ban on people coming from the three West African nations struggling with the outbreak.

In a politically tense climate, with the Nov. 4 elections just weeks away, the issue is being supercharged by partisan considerations with prominent Republicans calling for a ban, including John Boehner, the House speaker.

But public health officials say a travel ban would be ineffective and difficult to carry out and would not entirely prevent people in Ebola-hit countries from entering the United States.

Ultimately, health specialists said, a ban would do more harm than good because it would isolate impoverished nations that are barely able to cope with the outbreak, and possibly cut them off from the international aid workers who provide critical help to contain the disease.The White House on Thursday repeated its opposition to such a ban. President Obama said that he was following the advice of health experts and that “a travel ban is less effective than the measures that we are currently instituting.”

“If one takes the big-picture view the most important thing that can be done to protect Americans from Ebola is controlling Ebola in West Africa,” said Dr. Barry R. Bloom, a specialist in infectious diseases and public health professor at Harvard.

But Ebola evokes irrational fears — the disease is extremely infectious but also tremendously hard to catch — and authorities must tackle a public health crisis as well as manage public confidence.

So far, only one person has died in the United States from Ebola — a Liberian man who flew from Monrovia to Brussels and then to Dallas. Two nurses who helped treat him at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital contracted the disease.

Fears of contagion spiked after one of the nurses said she had been on a domestic flight the day before she was admitted with symptoms of Ebola. That prompted some schools in Texas and Ohio to close. Authorities have since asked that staff members involved in treating Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian who died of Ebola, to avoid public spaces.

Denying entry to people from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone would not stop the spread of Ebola into the United States, said Aditya Bhattacharji, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political risk firm. A ban, he noted, would be impossible to accomplish with 100 percent effectiveness.

What would happen with United States citizens visiting those countries and returning home, for instance? How about dual-nationals who don’t need a visa into the United States? How about other foreign nationals who visited West Africa?

Health quarantines have a long history, going back to the bubonic plague in Venice, said Dr. Howard Markel, a professor of pediatrics and communicable diseases at the University of Michigan. But in recent decades, even with diseases that are much more readily contagious than Ebola, travel bans have been rejected.A travel ban was never adopted in the 2003 SARS outbreak, which started in Asia, although it affected about 8,000 people worldwide, killing 774 of them. In that case, the World Health Organization issued a travel advisory, Dr. Markel said.

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