An Ebola Flight Ban Might Not Be Such A Good Idea After All, & It Won't Solve Our Problem

To ban or not to ban? With the slow growth of the number of Ebola cases, compounded by the exponential increase in the amount of fear surrounding the virus in the United States, President Obama has come under pressure to institute an Ebola flight ban on the West African nations that were most affected by the virus. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called for travel restrictions in order to keep Americans safe, with Texas Governor Rick Perry calling it the "right policy," and Governor John Kasich of Ohio telling reporters that it "makes sense." But according to expert analyses from FiveThirtyEight, CNN and Time, an Ebola flight ban would not only be ineffective, but it could also be counterproductive.

I admit, the argument for a ban seems rather compelling. On Thursday's congressional hearing about Ebola, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) justified the measure, saying,

A determined, infected traveler can evade the screening by masking the fever with ibuprofen… Further, it is nearly impossible to perform contact tracing of all people on multiple international flights across the globe, when contact tracing and treatment just within the United States will strain public health resources.

The numbers behind Ebola are terrifying — over 4,500 deaths and counting — and while Americans were initially able to ignore the outbreak, the sharp increase in the number of cases in the US over the last month, the death of patient Thomas Eric Duncan, and the subsequent person-to-person transfer of the virus to two Dallas nurses has heightened American fears of the disease to unprecedented levels. Ebola has become the latest health crisis, with some calling the deadly virus the modern day equivalent of the AIDS outbreak.

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In a letter published by the New York Daily News, Rep. Pete King (R-NY) cited statistics from the World Health Organization that suggest there may be "10,000 new Ebola cases per week spreading across West Africa in the near future." Earlier estimates from Northeastern University suggest that there could be 25 American Ebola cases by the end of November, and with only four American hospitals equipped with the facilities and personnel to handle the virus, there would only be about a dozen available slots at any given time to treat patients. As such, King and others believe, "The Obama administration must immediately institute a ban on individuals from West African Ebola-stricken countries from traveling to the United States."

But this simply isn't so, says both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the aviation industry. While the blanket ban may seem like a catch-all solution to the virus, it simply isn't as foolproof as it may seem, and could have unintended repercussions that might exacerbate the problem even further.

number of flights

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For one, the Ebola flight ban wouldn't make much sense because there simply isn't enough traffic coming into the United States from the worst affected countries — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. According to FiveThirtyEight, "There are no regularly scheduled direct flights to the U.S. from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone — and very few from other countries in West Africa."

For the most part, travelers from West Africa make their way to Europe, either as a final destination or before connecting to another flight to the United States. But even so, very few of these flights originated from the three worst hit nations. In fact, just 18 flights total come from those three countries on a weekly basis, and half of them are not currently operating.

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But if the US really wanted to eliminate the possibility of any passenger of any of those nine flights from crossing American borders, the ban would have to apply to the thousands of flights that come every week from Europe, the Middle East and other connecting airports. Simply put, unless the United States wanted to block all travel into the country altogether, there would be no guarantee that the ban would be effective in keeping Ebola out.

lack of control

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Another major argument against instituting a flight ban, the CDC says, is that it would force the US to relinquish the minute amount of control Americans currently have on Ebola. CDC chief Dr. Tom Frieden told CNN that he fears that a travel ban would cause incoming travelers to lie about their travel history for fear of being refused entry. This, Frieden says, might unintentionally pave the way for more potential carriers of the disease to enter the US undetected, with no way of knowing where they came from.

Right now, officials have the capacity to check detailed travel histories of travelers coming in and out of the US, which allows them to map the spread of the disease. If we were to shut our doors completely, however, some experts fear that we would lose valuable insights into how and where Ebola is moving.

no way to help

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The need for humanitarian aid in the fight against Ebola is at an all-time high, and if the United States were to shut its doors to people coming in, it would also likely have to prevent people from going out as well. Without a cure or a vaccine in play, preventing doctors and other aid workers from assisting the situation in West Africa could have disastrous consequences. Frieden told reporters this week,

If we do things that unintentionally make it harder to get that response in, to get supplies in, that make it harder for those governments to manage, to get everything from economic activity to travel going, it’s going to become much harder to stop the outbreak at the source. If that were to happen, it would spread for more months and potentially to other countries, and that would increase rather than decrease the risk to Americans.

it didn't work before

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In 1987, President Ronald Reagan banned anyone with HIV/AIDS from entering the United States. The ban remained in place until 2009, when President Obama eliminated it. In 1987, just over 71,000 people were HIV positive. Today, even with a 22-year ban, more than 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV. Of course, AIDS and Ebola are not perfectly synonymous cases, but even so, the evidence of the effectiveness of a ban is shaky at best. Even at the peak of SARS in 2003, there was never a travel ban against China, nor was there a ban against countries with H1N1 between 2009 and 2010.

Of course, part of the appeal of a ban is that it would at least create the illusion that the American government is doing something to fight the outbreak of the disease. But all things considered, it may not be the right thing to do.

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