By Richard Knox
The United States has entered a new phase in its response to Ebola. Call it “officially sanctioned panic.”
Governors from both parties — N.J. Gov. Chris Christie and N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo — declared over the weekend that even symptom-free health care volunteers coming home from Ebola duty in West Africa will be considered infected (and infectious) until they prove otherwise — by not falling ill for three weeks after their return.
But experts say mandatory quarantine of health workers and travel bans are unnecessary and could cripple the global fight against Ebola.
Against this backdrop, I had a long conversation this past weekend with Prof. Alessandro Vespignani. He’s a Northeastern University expert on how humans behave in the face of disease threats. The main takeaways: The key to defeating the outbreak is to get health care workers to West Africa and back, so to the extent a travel ban or quarantines impede that flow, they will be dangerously counter-productive. And travel is so hard to control fully that bans do little to stem the spread of disease anyway.
Vespignani is spending a lot of time these days consulting with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization on how the Ebola situation could evolve over the coming months.
He’s thinking some ominous thoughts, which he says reflect the views of U.S. and international health officials that he talks to. But the scenarios they worry about are very different from those that preoccupy many politicians and voters. Politicians worry more about the small, containable immediate threat to Americans of occasional imported cases than the longer-term and potentially catastrophic Ebola scenario that could affect the whole world — in other words, an Ebola pandemic.
Here’s an edited version of our conversation:
RK: Your group published a paper the other day in the journal Eurosurveillance that would seem counter-intuitive to many Americans. You say that imposing a ban on travelers from Ebola-affected countries won’t do much to prevent importation of the virus to the United States. Why is that?
Vespignani: People think if you have a travel ban everybody from those countries will be kept out. It’s not like that.
It’s important to know that we don’t have direct flights from West Africa. So a travel ban has to be coordinated internationally. There are a lot of people with two passports (whose country of origin can’t be easily tracked). People would try to circumvent the travel ban, and they wouldn’t be trackable — that’s one of the most dangerous things.
You can stop 95 percent of travelers from a country, but it’s very difficult to do 100 percent. And even a 90 or 95 percent travel ban is going to delay the arrival of Ebola (in the U.S.) by only about two months. It’s only buying time.
Already there is almost an 80 percent reduction in travel to the U.S. from that region, so we have already bought some time — about four to five weeks.
So what’s the practical effect of that delay? How much would a travel ban reduce Americans’ risk? Continue reading