The first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States has caused some to call on the United States to ban travel for anyone from the countries in West Africa facing the worst of the Ebola epidemic.
That response is understandable. It’s only human to want to protect ourselves and our families. We want to defend ourselves, so isn’t the fastest, easiest solution to put up a wall around the problem?
But, as has been said, for every complex problem, there’s a solution that’s quick, simple, and wrong.
A travel ban is not the right answer. It’s simply not feasible to build a wall – virtual or real – around a community, city, or country. A travel ban would essentially quarantine the more than 22 million people that make up the combined populations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
When a wildfire breaks out we don't fence it off. We go in to extinguish it before one of the random sparks sets off another outbreak somewhere else.
We don't want to isolate parts of the world, or people who aren't sick, because that's going to drive patients with Ebola underground, making it infinitely more difficult to address the outbreak.
It could even cause these countries to stop working with the international community as they refuse to report cases because they fear the consequences of a border closing.
Stopping planes from flying from West Africa would severely limit the ability of Americans to return to the United States or of people with dual citizenship to get home, wherever that may be.
In addition to not stopping the spread of Ebola, isolating countries will make it harder to respond to Ebola, creating an even greater humanitarian and health care emergency.
Importantly, isolating countries won’t keep Ebola contained and away from American shores. Paradoxically, it will increase the risk that Ebola will spread in those countries and to other countries, and that we will have more patients who develop Ebola in the U.S.
People will move between countries, even when governments restrict travel and trade. And that kind of travel becomes almost impossible to track.
Isolating communities also increases people’s distrust of government, making them less likely to cooperate to help stop the spread of Ebola.
Isolating communities and regions within countries will also backfire. Restricting travel or trade to and from a community makes the disease spread more rapidly in the isolated area, eventually putting the rest of the country at even greater risk.
To provide relief to West Africa, borders must remain open and commercial flights must continue.
There is no more effective way to protect the United States against additional Ebola cases than to address this outbreak at the source in West Africa. That’s what our international response—including the stepped-up measures the president announced last month—will do.
What works most effectively for quelling disease outbreaks like Ebola is not quarantining huge populations.
What works is focusing on and isolating the sick and those in direct contact with them as they are at highest risk of infection. This strategy worked with SARS and it worked during the H1N1 flu pandemic. Casting too wide a net, such as invoking travel bans, would only provide an illusion of security and would lead to prejudice and stigma around those in West Africa.
Americans can be reassured we are taking measures to protect citizens here.
Today, all outbound passengers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are screened for Ebola symptoms before they board an airplane.
Staff from CDC and the Department of Homeland Security’s Customers & Border Protection will begin new layers of entry screening, first at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York this Saturday, and in the following week at four additional airports -- Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C.; Newark Liberty International Airport; Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport; and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Combined, these U.S. airports receive almost 95 percent of the American-bound travelers from the Ebola-affected countries.
Travelers from those countries will be escorted to an area of the airport set aside for screening. There they will be observed for signs of illness, asked a series of health and exposure questions, and given information on Ebola and information on monitoring themselves for symptoms for 21 days. Their temperature will be checked, and if there’s any concern about their health, they’ll be referred to the local public health authority for further evaluation or monitoring.
Controlling Ebola at its source – in West Africa – is how we will win this battle. When countries are isolated, we cannot get medical supplies and personnel efficiently to where they’re needed – making it impossible to fight the virus in West Africa.
As the WHO's Gregory Hartl said recently, “Travel restrictions don’t stop a virus. If airlines stop flying to West Africa, we can’t get the people that we need to combat this outbreak, and we can’t get the food and the fuel and other supplies that people there need to survive.”
We know how to stop Ebola: by isolating and treating patients, tracing and monitoring their contacts, and breaking the chains of transmission.
Until Ebola is controlled in West Africa, we cannot get the risk to zero here in the United States.
Tom Frieden, M.D. is the former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.