Deadly Disease Requires Using All Tools in Toolbox

Published on October 29th, 2014

By Maria Fotopoulos
October 29, 2014

As West Africa’s Ebola outbreak has continued gaining momentum over the last seven months, the global implications of this disease become clearer by the day. Most of us are only 24 hours away by air from this extremely infectious virus. That’s not to engender fear or panic, rather to spur discussion in several areas. What do borders mean in today’s hyper-connected world? How can governments, nonprofits, NGOs, the medical community and individuals work better together to achieve the best outcomes?

Doctors Without Borders and Samaritan’s Purse were organizations on the frontlines of this outbreak early and are due extreme gratitude and support. Unfortunately, we know that the response to this crisis from governments internationally has been too slow. The medical community reported being overwhelmed in June, and Doctors Without Borders told the United Nations in September that world leadership was not stepping up to deal with the epidemic.

Albeit tardy, finally we’re seeing more action, which is encouraging. The Gates Foundation committed $50 million to ramp up emergency efforts to contain and interrupt transmission of the virus in September, and more recently Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Cha, contributed $25 million, while Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen upped his commitment to fight Ebola to $100 million. Funding is also flowing in from other foundations and organizations.

Yet government response continues to seem a step behind, with too many missteps. The most encouraging news has been the U.S. Army decision to maintain a 21-day separation period from the general public and family for the soldiers returning from deployment in West Africa to assist with the Ebola outbreak. Three weeks is believed to be the incubation period for the virus, which has so far killed about half of the more than 10,000 people who have contracted it in this outbreak.

Stopping the advance of this disease requires using multiple tools in the toolbox, but common sense dictates that the emphasis be put on stopping the disease at the source. To this point, one of the tools that there’s been reluctance to use is border enforcement. An inspections process for immigrants traditionally has been part of immigration law in order to, among other things, prevent admitting those who have communicable diseases. It should be noted we’re facing not just Ebola in the U.S., but the arrival from other countries of diseases such as drug-resistant tuberculosis and Enterovirus.

Too many elected officials and business leaders continue to act as though borders no longer matter, as evidenced by a gross breakdown of our immigration laws related to border enforcement. So it’s probably not surprising that, given border enforcement would be one tool to help combat this outbreak, the powers that be are more than a little reluctant to employ it. Perhaps ironically, those who have stepped up with significant funding also are proponents of what equates to open borders. Maybe they realize if this isn’t handled properly and Ebola spreads, the close-the-borders cry will turn deafening.

But until this Ebola outbreak has burned itself out, it’s right to question the reasonableness of the U.S. continuing to issue travel visas to citizens of the effected countries. Certainly the first case of Ebola in the U.S., in a traveler from Liberia, should have taken the conversation to another level.

Instead, we are caught up in the many ancillary issues that understandably arise when a problem isn’t adequately managed at the source, and allowed to compound.

With media not letting up on this story and with continuing public concern, the pressure remains high for more to be done. The kneejerk, distracting talk of cutting off all travel needs to be replaced with a more nuanced position of limiting nonessential travel and considering greater use of military to coordinate transportation for medical personnel, other aid workers and supplies, as well as to house returning workers at a designated military base for 21 days.

Temporarily shutting down visas for nonessential travel, while assisting those committed to ending the outbreak, narrows the potential for exposure and creates a contained loop.

By the way, this three-week protocol of limiting contact with the public and family should be viewed simply as precautionary for the greater benefit of the overall community, not as penalizing. Panic is the default position in a situation such as this. So developing a strategy that minimizes panic and costs is essential.

Hopefully “lessons learned” are being assimilated more quickly now so that the outbreak of this lethal disease will be contained and burn itself out in the next few months. Too, with the cash influx, hopefully we’ll see more training of citizens of African countries where Ebola and other hemorrhagic diseases originate, along with development of necessary infrastructure, so that better local responses can be mounted in future outbreaks.

Maria Fotopoulos is a Senior Writing Fellow with Californians for Population Stabilization and can be reached at [email protected]

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