Sunday, October 19, 2014

Containing the Folly of Travel Bans Being Able to Stop the Spread of Ebola

The news about the virus Ebola is spreading like wildfire, which is a much faster rate than Ebola itself. I tried putting off writing anything about Ebola for as long as possible because of the hype surrounded around the issue. Then I realized it was time to write something because of one of the proposals to stop the spread of Ebola gaining popularity by the majority of Americans, i.e., instituting travel bans. What a travel ban essentially means is that the government prevents any flights coming from Ebola-ridden nations. The intuition behind the travel ban is that the ban would at least contain the virus to the countries of origin, thereby sparing the rest of the world having to go through a pandemic. It's not simply a matter of the government limiting freedom of movement that I find irksome. Whether it's transfats, marijuana, plastic bags, or selling human organs, the government implementation of bans are ineffective and most probably come with unintended consequences. I can anticipate the following counterargument: "Well, wait a second. This is an exception to the rule because we are dealing with a public health issue. Viruses aren't the same as people. People at least have free will and impulse control. Viruses are created to infect, and especially if we do not have a cure for Ebola yet, we need to contain it." It makes for a compelling argument, but can it withstand scrutiny?

The first question I have to ask is if a travel ban is even necessary. Many airlines already de facto self-regulated by canceling flights from those countries about two months ago. Even if the airlines were completely oblivious to the danger presented and continued to allow flights into West Africa, the travel ban would still be a counterproductive measure. The most comprehensive study on the issue (Gomes et al., 2014) showed that even with an 80 percent reduction of airline traffic to the affected areas would only delay the spreading of the virus by a few weeks. As the director of the Center for Disease Control has tried to explain, it is unrealistic to "seal up a country" because even in the improbable hypothetical of having the sheer international coordination to account for connecting flights, people will find still a way out. If you really want to be cautious, America should simply cut off all travel and commerce for all countries for two months, but that would simply be economic suicide.

Paradoxically enough, by constricting travel, you prohibit the movement of volunteers, doctors, supplies, and aid needed to help contain the epidemic. This will not only exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in the currently affected countries, but will make it more likely that the rest of the world will have issues keeping Ebola contained. As an additional point of order, since the virus is not airborne and can only be contracted through direct contact [with the bodily fluids of someone already infected], the World Health Organization recommends that travel bans not be instituted.

Yes, we should work on mitigating the situation because as the the World Bank points out, this could cost billions of dollars. If we should have learned anything from the SARS or N1H1 epidemics, it is that travel bans don't work. We need to eliminate the virus at its core and make sure that the infected individuals can have the medical resources to be quarantined, thereby containing Ebola. Advancing medical progress, instead of implementing travel bans, is the best way to prevent a pandemic.

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