Containing Ebola, and Ebola Panic

This woman is helping an Ebola patient, not panicking.

The Ebola virus may be easier to handle in the U.S. than the Ebola panic. The first case of an Ebola victim traveling to the U.S. has not been handled perfectly, but the U.S. health-care system is well-poised to keep the disease under control. Now the U.S. political system has to work with health officials to help ease panic about the virus.

The White House's news conference Friday was designed to do just that. One of the suggestions military and health officials batted down at the news conference was a restriction on air travel from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where Ebola is out of control. Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, sent a letter last week to the Federal Aviation Administration asking for such limits.

This strategy might sound like an easy a way to keep the sick and infected away from the U.S. and other countries. But it's a drastic and unnecessary measure that would undermine the effort to fight Ebola on its main battleground. Flight restrictions only make it more difficult to get medical personnel and equipment into West Africa, where some 4,000 people are known to have Ebola. (More than 3,300 have already died.) And they restrict what trade with the countries is still going on.

Can Ebola victims be kept from boarding planes? Scores of them have been; airport authorities in the hot zone have been following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocol in screening passengers. The Texas patient exposed a flaw in the system when he falsely answered "no" to a question on a form about whether he'd been in contact with an Ebola patient. This has led some people to conclude that every West African with a plane ticket will do the same -- which is hardly likely.

The screening process for Ebola in hot-zone airports, already in place for months, could be enhanced. There are ways to design questionnaires to encourage truth-telling: Warn about penalties for false answers at the top, for example, and require the subject to sign the form before answering. People also tend to be more truthful when answering verbal questions than written ones.

The other essential screening step is to see that passengers do not have any symptoms that could be associated with Ebola (symptomless people cannot transmit the virus). In this regard, the screening of Thomas Duncan, the Liberian patient now in a Dallas hospital, was successful; his temperature was a healthy 97.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

Several members of Congress have suggested that similar temperature screening be done at the U.S. airports where planes from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea arrive. This would serve only to identify passengers who developed symptoms en route, and it may not make enough of a difference to warrant the expense and trouble.

There will almost certainly be more people who make their way to the U.S. carrying the Ebola virus, despite the best efforts to prevent it. When that happens, there will still be no cause for panic. Nigeria has been able to contain the disease with a quick and thorough response. There is every reason to believe that doctors and public-health workers in the U.S. will be able to do the same.

--Editors: Mary Duenwald, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net