A recent news report summarizes what America is doing to protect itself from the outbreak of Ebola:
Newly instituted screening procedures at New York’s JFK International Airport identified 91 arriving passengers as having a higher risk of being infected with Ebola based on their recent travel, CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said Monday. None of the airline passengers had a fever, Frieden said, noting that of five people who were sent for further evaluation, none were determined to have Ebola.
Frieden spoke at a news conference in which he gave an update on the effort to “break the chain of transmission” of Ebola; over the weekend, his agency confirmed that a female health care worker at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas contracted the virus while treating Thomas Eric Duncan, who died last week.
In the wake of the first instance of Ebola being contracted in the U.S., Frieden said the airport screenings at JFK are part of the agency’s plan to stop the disease; he said screenings will be instituted at four other airports — in Atlanta; Chicago; Newark, N.J.; and Dulles, Va. — by Thursday.
Canada has taken similar steps. The question is whether these steps alone are enough to protect North America from this health hazard. Some even wonder if Ebola is a big enough deal to warrant such measures. In one article, Jacquie Kubin writes:
Even if more cases appear in the U.S., the odds that Ebola could become an epidemic are remote: It isn’t easily spread; by the time patients are contagious, they can be quickly and easily identified; and the measures required to isolate it aren’t that difficult — if we are willing to spend the resources to do it. We should be concerned about Ebola, but not afraid.
While admittedly not an infectious disease expert myself, I think a certain dose of fear is healthy in this case. Fearmongering won’t help anything, but I believe it’s wise to be prudent. What is needed is a 90-day moratorium on air travellers coming to North America from Ebola affected countries. This can be be implemented along the lines of a new visa regime.
Democratic Florida Senator Bill Nelson recently called for something similar to this:
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) is calling for changes to help combat the Ebola epidemic by issuing a temporary ban on travel visas to people in areas hardest hit by the virus. Nelson was meeting at Orlando International Airport with customs officials on Wednesday. He wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking him to consider suspending unnecessary travel to the US from African countries hit by the crises. “Considering the changing events and overall magnitude of the situation, it may be time to reexamine the travel issue from the standpoint of visas,” Nelson said in a release. He later said necessary travel would be OK, for an example, humanitarian assistance.
The travel ban concept is also shared by a majority of the American public. This type of policy will give health care workers in Canada and the US – especially in potential hot spots like Dallas – time to get a handle on the crisis before it spreads further.
While Senator Nelson’s approach may or may not be right, I still do not believe it goes far enough. In addition to the travel ban, what is needed is a stepped up program of financial and medical assistance to the affected countries to enable them to adequately battle the illness. The two steps should be taken together.
I am not trying to push the panic button here. But North America has never battled a disease like this before. While we have recently dealt with other spreading illnesses like avian flu and SARS and have managed to deal with them quite well, they were not as deadly nor as highly contagious as this one. These are the key reasons for taking extraordinary steps to prevent Ebola’s spread. All the assurances from the medical community notwithstanding, I believe the old maxim “better safe than sorry” applies. While I support the screening of passengers entering our airports from West Africa as the first measure being implemented in this crisis, I do not believe this alone is going far enough.
Introducing a new visa regime and applying extra resources to fight the battle against this disease where it has originated are the rational steps our governments should take.