White House says travel ban for West Africa isn't needed to fight Ebola


Should the U.S. do more to stop people infected with Ebola from entering the country?

While some Republicans in Congress have raised the idea of a travel ban for West African countries experiencing an outbreak of the virus, the Obama administration has said it believes adequate screening procedures are already in place.

“Every Ebola outbreak over the past 40 years has been stopped,” Lisa Monaco, a security adviser to the president, told reporters on Friday. “We know how to do this and we will do it again.”

Monaco told reporters the White House did not plan to institute a travel ban for countries with Ebola outbreaks, because the current screening system being used in African airports had stopped “dozens and dozens of people” from boarding flights to other countries.

The precautions didn’t stop the virus from reaching the U.S., however.

Health officials in Texas are working to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus after a Liberian man in Dallas was diagnosed with the disease earlier this week.

On Friday, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said they were monitoring 50 people who came in contact with the patient, who recently arrived from Liberia two weeks ago to visit relatives.

Two patients were admitted to hospitals in the Washington, D.C., area on Friday after experiencing Ebola-like symptoms, but further testing revealed neither patient had the disease.

Some conservatives believe the U.S. needs to control the outbreak more aggressively. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration asking if they intend to suspend or limit air travel from affected nations in West Africa. He cited several African countries that have taken similar steps, as well as major airlines that have stopped flights over worries about the disease.

Thom Tillis, a Republican running for Senate in North Carolina, said flights from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to the U.S. should be suspended. FOX News commentator Bill O’Reilly agreed, saying “West Africans should not be admitted to the USA until the epidemic is controlled.”

Those views shouldn’t be surprising. When people get scared about communicable diseases (and Ebola is scary), immigrants are the first to shoulder the blame.

Examples abound from the past several hundred years: tying the bubonic plague to the Chinese; cholera to the Irish; polio to Italians. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie explored the phenomenon here.

This isn’t just a historical trend. As recently as August, one Republican member of Congress suggested children fleeing to the U.S. from Central America might be carrying Ebola.

The U.S. does take precautions to keep people infected with the virus from entering the country. Customs agents look for “overt signs” of illness and ask airline passengers to report their travel history. Agents are trained to isolate those suspected of carrying the virus.

Additionally, Liberian authorities require outgoing airline passengers to disclose whether they’ve come into contact with a person infected with Ebola. The case in Dallas circumvented those safeguards, however.

The Liberian man, Thomas E. Duncan, had been in close contact with a woman suffering from the illness before departing for the U.S. But he didn’t disclose that when he left Liberia, according to authorities in that country. “He lied on his form,” a Liberian airport official told The New York Times.

U.S. agents didn’t detect the illness, either, since the disease had yet to manifest itself during his time of travel.

Beth Bell, a top infectious disease expert at the CDC, said on Friday that U.S. hospitals can “safely manage” a patient with Ebola. After decades of experience with the disease, health officials know how to stop the spread of the virus between people, she said.

That isn’t likely to silence critics calling for the U.S. to close the door to West Africa. Immigration hardliners are using the pandemic to drum up fear of immigrants, according to Opal Tometi, executive director of immigrant-rights group Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

“There has been this conservative agenda that’s trying to stop migration, period, and they’re going to use any excuse,” she said. “So they’re going to catch onto something like the Ebola virus, and they’re going to use this for their own gain.”

Update, 10/4/14, 12:50 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to include new developments around the cases in the Washington, D.C., area.

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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