Proposed Ebola travel ban would undermine both humanitarian objectives and domestic security

Thomas Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control  and Prevention, noted that a travel ban would encourage travelers to affected areas to lie to authorities about their itineraries.

Fair use: Associated Press

Thomas Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted that a travel ban would encourage travelers to affected areas to lie to authorities about their itineraries.

A recent Harvard poll indicates that 39% of American adults anticipate a large outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in the United States within the next year, while 25% fear transmission to their family members. This view has resulted in a number of bizarre incidents of paranoia, ranging from Syracuse University’s cancellation of a lecture by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, to two Rwandan immigrant children being kept from elementary school.

In light of these widespread fears, a proposal for a ban on travel to and from the Ebola-stricken West African countries Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, has gained some support in Washington. Proponents, such as Pennsylvania congressman Tim Murphy, argue that routine screenings at American airports will be ineffective at identifying carriers of the disease, since symptoms can remain latent for as many as 21 days. A travel ban, however, would be counterproductive from both a humanitarian and a security standpoint; it would address a largely nonexistent domestic threat while undermining efforts to combat Ebola in seriously affected areas.

First, there is exceptionally little potential for an Ebola epidemic in the United States. Other countries with far less medical infrastructure—most notably Nigeria and Senegal—have managed to entirely control the disease after it spread within their borders. And despite the initial panic over Amber Vinson, a nurse who flew on an airplane before she was hospitalized with Ebola, the disease has gained no traction in the general American population. Only two infections have taken place within the country, both originating from a patient who was treated at a Dallas hospital. Forty-three individuals who were at risk for exposure were recently released from quarantine after the requisite three-week period; five others have shown no symptoms and are nearing the deadline. While there have undoubtedly been blunders in the American response to the virus, Ebola presently does not pose a threat sufficient to justify a blanket travel ban.

But while Ebola hysteria is unwarranted in the United States, a very real catastrophe is unfolding in West Africa. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ebola has claimed over 4,500 lives in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, and new cases continue to be reported. Over 4,000 children have lost both parents to the disease, according to UNICEF figures cited by CNN. The CDC estimates that as many as 1.4 million cases could develop in the three countries by January. Clearly, an active response is necessary in these areas—both to minimize the overall death toll, and to quell the possibility of an even wider epidemic at its source.

In September, the Obama administration dedicated 3,000 American military personnel to train health workers, distribute supplies, and erect clinics in West Africa. This comprises a crucial step towards containing the epidemic, but the logistic support provided by the military will be of little avail without the presence of foreign health care workers—many of whom are volunteers. Christian relief groups in particular, have been deeply engaged in the effort to treat and contain the disease abroad. A travel ban would obstruct the flow of volunteers from America to West Africa and thereby increase the epidemic’s severity.

Ironically, a travel ban would also likely impede the efforts to keep the United States safe from the spread of Ebola. Thomas Frieden, the head of the CDC, noted that a ban would encourage travelers to affected areas to lie to authorities about their itineraries, and limit his agency’s ability to monitor potential risks. Because an effective Ebola response depends on identifying and quarantining those potentially exposed to the virus, limiting the volume of travel at the cost of decreasing its visibility makes a poor trade-off.

Fundamentally, then, the proposal for an Ebola travel ban constitutes a reversal of important priorities. Facilitating a humanitarian response, not hiding our heads in the sand, is both the morally correct course of action and the one most likely to keep the disease from penetrating our borders.