Stop Ebola at the Border

Posted: Oct 14, 2014 12:01 AM

In September the President gave a somber and yet reassuring-sounding speech concerning the United States response to the Ebola virus that is currently ravaging three West African nations. He prefaced his presentation of the administration’s strategy by saying that while efforts to contain the outbreak in West Africa were a matter of global security, there were also measures in place to “make sure someone with the virus does not get on a plane to the United States.”

Apparently those measures, whatever they may have been, did not work – because just two weeks later a man arrived by plane from Liberia and within days became ill from Ebola, exposing dozens of other Americans to the disease along the way. At present, the CDC is currently observing over 50 individuals who have been potentially exposed to the deadly virus. Strike number one against Obama’s Ebola containment policy.

During the same speech before the CDC, Obama said that “in the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores, we’ve taken measures here at home” to deal with Ebola. Well, that didn’t happen either. Not only did the patient, who has since died, arrive at the hospital with Ebola-like symptoms, but he fully disclosed that he had recently arrived from Liberia and was exposed to people sick with the condition. And yet incredulously, the medical team at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital sent him home with a bottle of aspirin and a general antibiotic. It was not until the man began vomiting in the streets that the medical establishment began to take his and his family’s suspicions seriously. The U.S. public health system is clearly unprepared for Ebola, as it could not even recognize the disease when it was staring them right in the face. Strike two against Obama’s Ebola preparedness strategy.

The nation is finally awake to the reality of Ebola on U.S. soil. In less than six months, we have gone from a country that had never had a case of Ebola on its soil in its’ entire history, to five Ebola victims (including evacuated medical personnel) and one death caused by the virus. And so predictably (and justifiably), the U.S. public has become concerned about not only the possibility of persons infected with the disease arriving from Ebola-stricken countries, but also about the U.S. health care system’s real capacity for containing the disease once it arrives. In fact, National Nurses United, the largest union of professional nurses in the country, announced that it believed the nation’s hospitals have not received adequate training or resources to deal with Ebola, and stated that almost 90 percent of its’ members had no training at all on how to deal with an Ebola outbreak.

Consequently, the majority of Americans (58% percent according to a recent survey-monkey poll), favor a travel ban visitors from the three stricken countries, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Liberals have howled foul as usual, saying that concerns expressed over the Obama administration’s Ebola containment policy are motivated by racism and xenophobia, and have the effect of stigmatizing people in Africa who are suffering from the disease. However, several African countries have themselves banned travel from the Ebola-stricken neighbors. South Africa, Kenya and Zambia currently have total or partial flight bans in place. It is not coincidence that these are places that have had some of the worst problems with the AIDS virus historically. AIDS came close to completely destroying these societies, and they have learned their lesson about early and aggressive containment rather than denial and delay. The health officials in these countries also know that they do not have enough public health resources to deal with an Ebola outbreak should it occur. They do not want another AIDS on their hands, and so out of an abundance of caution they have restricted travel to the Ebola-infected countries until the virus is contained.

Why is it so far-fetched that the United States should follow suit? The Obama Administration has thus far issued a tepid response to calls for flight bans. Among its chief stated concerns is that a travel ban would make it more difficult for U.S. medical personnel to treat infected people in Africa. Well, that’s easy enough to solve. Restrict travel for all but essential personnel involved in the containment effort. And even then, screen medical personnel appropriately before they return to the United States from Ebola-ravaged places.

The whole issue comes down to a balance of the possible harm. What is the harm caused by restricting public travel into the United States for period of time versus the possible harm to America should the Ebola virus take root here? We should follow the example of the African nations who have implemented similar travel restrictions. We cannot afford to rely upon a screening process that would not have even detected the one known case of Ebola from arriving on U.S. soil. That victim presented no symptoms before his arrival. The stakes are too high to play around with niceties in the face of impending crisis. It is clear that the U.S. public health system is not yet prepared to deal with a major outbreak of the disease. Furthermore, if Ebola did break out in the United States, our attention will be rightly diverted to mitigating our own disaster, leaving little focus and resources for the battle to contain the disease in Africa. It almost goes without saying that a sick doctor, especially a doctor sick with a communicable virus, is in no position to heal sick patients.

We cannot afford to strike out on Ebola. The implications for not only our society, but the global economy itself are too dire to risk needlessly exposing U.S. populations. We should stop Ebola from entering the U.S. at the border, while continuing to engage in a rigorous, coordinated effort to stem the contagion in Africa. This is both the most logical and the most compassionate approach to dealing with this unfortunate tragedy.