The Cable

Are Ebola Travel Restrictions a Misstep in Obama’s Fight to Stop the Disease?

Public-health officials within the Obama administration have repeatedly argued that travel restrictions to or from West African nations would not stop the spread of Ebola in the United States. Apparently, their Homeland Security colleagues disagree, with four new airports now screening passengers from West Africa. This afternoon, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson limited entry of ...

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Public-health officials within the Obama administration have repeatedly argued that travel restrictions to or from West African nations would not stop the spread of Ebola in the United States. Apparently, their Homeland Security colleagues disagree, with four new airports now screening passengers from West Africa.

This afternoon, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson limited entry of passengers from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea to the five U.S. airports — JFK, Newark, Dulles, Atlanta, and Chicago’s O’Hare — that have Ebola-screening equipment (JFK had been testing since Saturday). Travelers will be screened for the virus upon arrival, Johnson said.

"Today, as part of the Department of Homeland Security’s ongoing response to prevent the spread of Ebola to the United States, we are announcing travel restrictions in the form of additional screening and protective measures at our ports of entry for travelers from the three West African Ebola-affected countries," Johnson stated. "These new measures will go into effect tomorrow."

The timing of the restrictions is curious; no new Ebola case has been reported in the United States in the last five days. Last week, Thomas Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, resisted calls from hostile lawmakers to back travel restrictions. The move is also a capitulation to lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, who began howling as soon as news emerged that a Liberian man with Ebola, Thomas Eric Duncan, had flown to Dallas. He died 19 days later.

Johnson’s decision comes despite ample evidence that travel bans simply don’t work. Over at Vox, Julia Belluz and Steven Hoffman outlined several cases, including HIV/AIDS and SARS, where travel bans proved ineffective.

The announcement also isn’t likely to lessen the public’s anxiety about the virus, which seems to have subsided amid the disease’s apparent containment in the United States. A recent Gallup poll showed that less than one quarter of Americans were concerned about contracting the deadly virus. David Dausey, a Yale-trained epidemiologist who works on controlling pandemics and who is dean of the School of Health Professions and Public Health at Mercyhurst University, said that the American public needs to get used to dealing with such outbreaks.

"We’re in a global village, and emerging infectious disease are going to happen," he recently told FP. "People need to change their mindset. They need to view emerging infectious diseases as something we’re going to have to deal with."

The travel restrictions also break with the game plan Nigeria used to stop Ebola. Read our post on what Nigeria did right and what the United States is doing wrong here.    

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