Ebola Travel Concerns Prompt Questions About Visitor Ban

A senior Republican member of Congress asked today why the U.S. hasn’t banned travel from West African countries in order to prevent an Ebola outbreak there from spreading.

Representative Joe Barton of Texas raised his concern that enough isn’t being done to stop the disease during a hearing today held by the House Committee on Homeland Security in Dallas, where Thomas Eric Duncan was the first U.S.-diagnosed case of the deadly virus. Duncan died of Ebola in a Dallas hospital on Oct. 8, after flying to the U.S. from Liberia about three weeks before.

“If we were really treating this as a public health issue why would we not immediately stop these flights,” Barton said today at the hearing with federal health and border officials. “You’re almost guaranteeing mathematically we’re going to miss some people” with Ebola. Barton is the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Barring travel to and from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone -- the West Africa nations at the center of the outbreak -- would hurt the effort to fight the virus there, said Toby Merlin, director of the preparedness division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Infected people would instead go to neighboring countries, worsening the outbreak in Africa and creating more cases that could transfer to the U.S., Merlin said. A travel ban also could disrupt aid workers’ ability to deliver needed supplies.

“Our experience has been when there are interruptions in air travel it impedes the public health response,” he told the panel. “Although there might be work-arounds, like military transport, that’s difficult and right now time is of the essence.”

Africa Outbreak

About 8,400 people have been infected with the disease, largely in the three West African countries, the World Health Organization reported today. Of those, 4,033 have died.

Barton’s comments echoed calls from other members of Congress at today’s field hearing at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Duncan flew from Liberia to Brussels, then entered the U.S. on Sept. 20 at Dulles International Airport outside Washington before flying on to Dallas.

He was released from a Dallas emergency room on Sept. 26 after physicians failed to diagnose him with the virus, only to return two days later in an ambulance. His case has sharpened fears that travelers from the countries could spread the outbreak around the globe.

Officials have already increased screening at U.S. ports of entry in response to public concern. Travelers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone will have their temperatures taken and be asked about possible exposure to Ebola as part of new entry measures into the U.S. at five major airports.

There is no cure for Ebola, which is spread by contact with the blood and bodily fluids of those infected. The disease causes fever, diarrhea, muscle pain, vomiting and, as it progresses, can lead to bleeding from the eyes, ears and nose.

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