The news that two health-care workers who were caring for Ebola patient Thomas Duncan have contracted the disease should give the president and Congress reason to seriously consider imposing restrictions on travel to and from West African countries where the virus is running rampant.
Travel restrictions don’t indicate unnecessary fear or panic, but rather an understanding that Ebola is a disease whose virulence we still don’t fully know how to contain, let alone treat. The two workers caring for Duncan were, after all, trained to follow precautionary measures; nevertheless, they caught the disease despite the gloves, gowns and masks they must have been wearing. That failure while following protocol underscores the unfortunate truth that the protocol to treat Ebola is too difficult to follow and makes it, in effect, one that exists on paper but is almost impossible to implement. If trained nurses versed in infectious disease protocols can get Ebola, anyone can.
Travelers on commercial airlines don’t wear masks, gowns or hazmat suits. They are not trained in all the precautionary measures necessary to guard against protecting themselves against infection. Passengers other than those traveling first class sit in cramped conditions, a perfect environment for any disease to spread, not to mention a highly contagious one like Ebola. Permitting unfettered commercial travel to and from the region defies the basics of public health. And let’s remember that Ebola isn’t the measles, but most often a death sentence to anyone who gets it.
Yes, we have to provide whatever aid we can to the countries afflicted with the deadly disease, but in doing so, we also have to make sure we are not creating a health-care crisis here at home. We can use military transport planes, equipped with highly trained personnel, to ship medical supplies to the affected countries. It’s in our best interest and in the interest of West Africa to eradicate the disease at its source.
We also don’t want to drive those countries into deeper poverty and hunger, so there should be provisions for travel — but they have to be highly circumscribed conditions. Anyone attempting to travel to the U.S. from the regions hit with Ebola should only be granted a visa if the reason for travel is critical to the economy, public health, and well-being of those countries. And those individuals should be quarantined for the duration of the incubation period, either in the U.S. or in West Africa. Stopping causal travel to the U.S. will not impede humanitarian efforts to assist Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone or other nations in combatting the disease.
Placing heavy restrictions on travel and instituting quarantines may sound like a failure to those at the Centers for Disease Control, but such measures have their place in American history. Before planes crisscrossed the skies, immigrants to the U.S. arrived by ship, and they stopped at Ellis Island. Passengers suspected of contagious infection were confined to a hospital on the island. Thousands were shipped back to their countries of origin. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, New York City quarantined incoming ships’ passengers; Chicago shut down many public gathering places. Countries that imposed strict quarantines during the 1918 pandemic, such as Japan, were mostly spared the heavy loss of life that influenza inflicted on the rest of the world.
Without strict quarantine measures on the countries where Ebola has been spreading, it may become impossible to contain the disease. At first, the CDC was diligently tracking all those who came in contact with Duncan. That amounted to perhaps a few dozen people. Now, it has to cast a wider net in tracking those who came in contact with two nurses. That number may now run to more than eight hundred, as it became clear that one of the nurses took a commercial flight to Cleveland. What if someone with the disease decides to board a crowded subway car? The number of people possibly infected then becomes nearly impossible to monitor.
Of course, no measures are foolproof, and it’s important to keep Ebola in perspective. There are many other deadly diseases that are taking a bigger toll in our hospitals. Bacterial meningitis can be just deadly as Ebola. Clostridium difficile (C. diff), a bacteria that often strikes in health-care facilities, has been attributed to 14,000 deaths a year in the U.S. However, treatments exist that are sometimes effective. Unfortunately, Ebola has shown itself to be one of the most deadly diseases in history, with a 70 percent mortality rate. We have to do all we can to keep it away from our shores.