POLITICS
10/16/2014 03:46 pm ET | Updated Oct 16, 2014

Lawmakers Ignore Experts, Push For Ebola Travel Ban

WASHINGTON -- Growing numbers of lawmakers on Thursday called for a ban on travel from the West African nations at the center of the Ebola epidemic, spurning the advice of the nation's top health officials who testified that such an action would be counterproductive.

Cries to cut off travel from the affected nations escalated dramatically with the arrival in Texas of Thomas Eric Duncan, who contracted the disease in Liberia and became sick after he arrived in the United States, and whose infection has spread to two nurses who cared for him.

At least 40 members of Congress have gone on record seeking a travel ban, and several pressed the case for one in a hearing on Capitol Hill.

"It needs to be solved in Africa, but until then, we should not be letting these people in, period," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which held the hearing.

"I restate my ongoing concern that administration officials still refuse to consider any travel restrictions for the more than 1,000 travelers entering the United States each week from Ebola hot zones," said Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), who heads the subcommittee on oversight and investigations and led the hearing.

"A month ago the president told us someone reaching our shores with Ebola was unlikely, and that we've taken the necessary precautions to increase screening at airports so that someone with the virus does not get on a plane to the United States," Murphy said. "Screening and self-reporting have been a demonstrated failure."

Thomas Frieden, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had testified to Congress earlier in the outbreak that it was possible someone could arrive in the United States and become sick with Ebola. He said then, however, that the disease could be controlled.

While Frieden did not rule out a travel ban, he and Anthony Fauci, the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, explained why it wasn't a good idea.

"It is understandable how someone might come to the conclusion that the best approach would be to just seal off the border from those countries," Fauci said. "But we are dealing with something now that we know what we are dealing with," he said, answering Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who had just held up a map showing numerous flight paths a person could take from West Africa that stopped in multiple other parts of the world first.

"If you have the possibility of doing all of those lines that [Waxman] showed, that is a big web of things where we do not know what we are dealing with," Fauci said.

Under the current system, authorities flag anyone who has been in any of the affected countries in the previous 21 days, which covers the incubation period for Ebola.

John Wagner, a Customs and Border Protection official, said that since screening had started in U.S. airports, some 155 people had been flagged for extra screening, with a number of them getting second and third looks. None have had Ebola.

The idea, Frieden and the others explained, is that in order to effectively stop Ebola from spreading, medical authorities have to be able to trace back a person's movements and contacts. That becomes difficult if people are hiding their movements to circumvent the ban, making it much more likely that other people can become infected unknowingly.

Wagner said it still would be possible to track people who did not tell the truth, but that having a travel ban raises the odds of infected people slipping through.

The doctors have also warned that cutting off travel to the region could make it harder to move medical workers and relief supplies to and from the area, exacerbating the outbreak and creating an even larger pool of infected people capable of spreading the virus internationally.

Still, members of Congress did not believe the experts, and suggested maybe Congress should take matters into its own hands.

"Perhaps this committee should consider forwarding to the full House a request that we have a vote on travel restrictions, because people are asking us to do that, and I think they are exactly correct to make that request," said Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas).

"After having this subcommittee hearing I believe even more that we ought to have them [travel restrictions]," said Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.).

Another lawmaker who disagreed with Frieden also suggested that pets should be blocked from traveling, too, noting that a dog belonging to one of the infected nurses was being monitored.

"Although we have not seen transmission of humans to dogs, we really don't know if there can be," said Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.). "I understand the concerns about humanitarianism, et cetera, but don't you think we should at least restrict travel on dogs?"

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

ALSO ON HUFFPOST:

  • 1 Ebola is highly infectious and even being in the same room as someone with the disease can put you at risk
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Not as far as we know. Ebola isn't contagious until symptoms begin, and it spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of patients. It is not, from what we know of the science so far, an airborne virus. So contact with the patient's sweat, blood, vomit, feces or semen could cause infection, and the body remains infectious after death. Much of the spread in west Africa has been attributed to the initial distrust of medical staff, leaving many to be treated at home by loved ones, poorly equipped medics catching the disease from patients, and the traditional burial rites involving manually washing of the dead body. From what we know already, you can't catch it from the air, you can't catch it from food, you can't catch it from water.
  • 2 You need to be worried if someone is sneezing or coughing hard
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Apart from the fact that sneezing and coughing aren't generally thought to be symptoms of Ebola, the disease is not airborne, so unless someone coughed their phlegm directly into your mouth, you wouldn't catch the disease. Though medical staff will take every precaution to avoid coming into contact with the body of an infected person at all costs, with stringent hygiene there should be a way to contain the virus if it reaches the UK.
  • 3 Cancelling all flights from west Africa would stop the spread of Ebola
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    This actually has pretty serious implications. British Airways suspended its four-times-weekly flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone until the end of March, the only direct flight to the region from the UK. In practice, anyone can just change planes somewhere else and get to Britain from Europe, north Africa, or the Middle East. And aid agencies say that flight cancellations are hampering efforts to get the disease under control, they rely on commercial flights to get to the infected regions. Liberia's information minister, Lewis Brown, told the Telegraph this week that BA was putting more people in danger. "We need as many airlines coming in to this region as possible, because the cost of bringing in supplies and aid workers is becoming prohibitive," he told the Telegraph. "There just aren't enough seats on the planes. I can understand BA's initial reaction back in August, but they must remember this is a global fight now, not just a west African one, and we can't just be shut out." Christopher Stokes, director of MSF in Brussels, agreed: “Airlines have shut down many flights and the unintended consequence has been to slow and hamper the relief effort, paradoxically increasing the risk of this epidemic spreading across countries in west Africa first, then potentially elsewhere. We have to stop Ebola at source and this means we have to be able to go there.”
  • 4 Temperature screening at airports is an effective way to stop those who have the disease from travelling
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    The screening process is pretty porous, especially when individuals want to subvert it. Wake up on the morning of your flight, feel a bit hot, and you definitely don't want to be sent to an isolation booth for days and have to miss your flight. Take an ibuprofen and you can lower your temperature enough to get past the scanners. And if you suspect you have Ebola, you might be desperate to leave, seeing how much better the treatment success has been in western nations. And experts have warned that you cannot expect people to be honest about who they have had contact with. Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola victim who died in Texas, told officials he had not been in contact with anyone with the disease, but had in fact visited someone in the late stages of the virus, though he said he believed it was malaria. The extra screening that the US implemented since his death probably wouldn't have singled out Duncan when he arrived from hard-hit Liberia last month, because he had no symptoms while travelling.
  • 5 Border staff should stop people coming in to the country who are at risk
    LEON NEAL via Getty Images
    They're not doctors, and it's a monumental task to train 23,500 people who work for the UK Border Agency how to correctly diagnose a complex disease, and spot it in the millions of people who come through British transport hubs. Public Health England has provided UK Border Force with advice on the assessment of an unwell patient on entry to UK, but they can't be expected to check everyone.
  • 6 Screening at British airports should be implemented to stop unwell people coming in from affected areas
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    As mentioned before, the UK, especially London, is a major transport hub. Unlike the US, most of those coming from west Africa will have crossed through Europe, so infected people could be coming from practically anywhere, not just flights directly from those countries. This would require the UK to screen every returning traveller, as people could return to the UK from an affected country through any port of entry. This would be huge numbers of low risk people, at vast, vast expense.
  • 7 Ebola doesn't have a cure
    John Moore via Getty Images
    There are several cures currently being tested for Ebola. They include the ZMapp vaccine which was administered to British sufferer William Pooley and two other Americans who caught the disease in west Africa and they all recovered. Supplies of the drug have now run dry, and it has not been through clinical trials to prove its effectiveness. Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the company that makes ZMapp, says the drug's supplies are exhausted and that it takes months to make even a small batch. But an Ebola cure is very much on the horizon, and would have come sooner had it been seen as any kind of priority for drug companies before it started reaching the western world.
  • 8 Ebola is a death sentence
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    It is true that certain strains of Ebola have had a death rate of 90%. However, with this particular epidemic the stats are more positive, a death rate of around 60%. Those who have decent, strong immune systems, are able to access intravenous fluids and scrupulous health care are far more likely to survive, which is why the survival rate of westerners who contract the disease is far better. Experts have suggested that, rather than waste money on pointless airport screenings, funds could be used to improve infrastructure in the affected nations to help halt the spread of the disease at source.
  • 9 Ebola turns you into a zombie
    Renee Keith via Getty Images
    Just, no.

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