Ban Travel To/From Africa? Not So Fast

Ebola is nasty stuff and certainly has the potential to be an extremely deadly worldwide disease. But as I said here, it is not thought to be an airborne virus so most people exposed to someone with Ebola will never get it themselves. Rather, what makes this illness so scary is that those who are exposed to a victim’s bodily fluids dramatically increase their chances of transmission and infection.

The political brain trust in Washington believes that if we ban U.S. travel from West Africa, we are out of the woods. With all due respect to these pols, they are the same people who got us to spend $100 billion on TSA. Please remind me again just how many terrorists TSA has caught? Expect similar results if this proposal becomes law. I am not a doctor and never stayed at a Holiday Inn Express but I am a very frequent traveler. With that pedigree, this is how I size up the situation:

  • In truth, there are very few direct flights between West Africa and the U.S. Most are connecting flights, some through South Africa and even more from Europe, so this proposed travel ban would be meaningless. Sure, it’s possible other nations could have screening procedures for international flights to the U.S. but without American monitoring, there is no way to insure specific compliance.
  • Some members of Congress, led by Sen. Grassley, sent a letter to the President asking for a halt to issuing visas from the infected countries and consider banning all travel to the U.S. from countries that “may not have standards in place to properly screen travelers.” It is not that difficult to get around the visa issue by arriving from a non-visa country. Besides, are we any safer if someone entering the U.S. with active Ebola is a U.S. citizen instead of an African citizen? And don’t forget, travelers also may enter the U.S. from Mexico or Canada by simply walking across the border.
  • Moreover, all the screening does is look for active symptoms like a fever, which could be caused by something else. As I mentioned before, the single biggest problem is the potential for people to go as long as 21 days without any signs of illness. It is very easy for anyone to enter the U.S. with virtually no symptoms but contract Ebola weeks later. The current CDC screening will never pick up these individuals.
  • Flights going to West Africa should be safe, right? After all, they originate in the U.S. so we can be proactive and screen passengers. Unfortunately, this idea also has holes. If flights are allowed to get there but not get out, just what is supposed to happen to those crews, teachers, aid workers, and missionaries who are there? Leave them there indefinitely?

There are only a couple ways to insure that this illness never again arrives in the U.S. The first is to seal off ALL worldwide travel to and from Africa by every method – flight, train, boat, car, camel, whatever. This would mean humankind is giving up on the continent, letting this disease eradicate all life forms to presumably keep the rest of humanity safe.

I am not an Ebola expert but if the CDC can be trusted, the second method for guaranteed safety is a policy that anyone who wishes to travel to the U.S. would have to agree to a 21-day quarantine. This is also totally unrealistic. Who would pay for all U.S.-bound travelers to stay somewhere for 21 days? For that matter, who would agree to this? Virtually no one I know would travel outside the U.S. if it meant that for three weeks before their return, they would be bedridden. Good luck explaining that work delay to the boss. This would virtually stop all international travel to the U.S. and it wouldn’t be limited to flying. All cruise ships and sea cargo also would be affected. Notwithstanding our porous borders, it would effectively mean the U.S. would have to be isolated from the rest of the world and that just isn’t gonna happen.

So what will happen? Can’t speak for Congress but I do expect more international arrival delays as CBP steps up screening. Most likely there will also be more delays due to inbound passengers who become ill inflight. Even somewhat normal symptoms of illness such as feeling feverish or instances where passengers may vomit will be treated with extended care. With some crews, it may mean diverting flights to other airports. Sometimes there will be overabundances of caution where passengers will miss connections and suffer other travel delays. I am on international flights a few times each month and have been asked by CBP if my return flights have taken me through Africa (no, they have not).

I remember similar travel fears when we learned about illnesses like HIV, SARS, and H1N1. We survived all of these and we will get through Ebola. One day science will develop a vaccine to treat this illness. In the meantime, there are a couple things we can do to protect ourselves. The first is bathe daily. Trust me, others around you will be most appreciative of this. The second thing is wash your hands frequently with soap and water. The hands are the easiest way to transmit contagious diseases. While each of us can do our part, there is nothing we can do about others. Therein lies the weak link.

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