(Bloomberg Businessweek)—In the wake of the revelation that the Dallas man infected with Ebola flew on United Airlines flights from Liberia to Liberia, more than a few people have seized on a blunt response: ban flights from West Africa. Texas Representative Ted Poe, a Republican, has written to the Centers for Disease Control asking it to recommend travel restrictions. Representative Alan Grayson, a Democrat from Florida, has called for a 90-day ban on travel from Ebola-touched countries to the U.S.
The White House is resisting those calls, and that’s the right thing to do. Restricting travel to and from the affected region will have little impact on the already minimal risk to Americans from the Ebola virus while further worsening the situation in West Africa. And the history of the global fight against infection has demonstrated that we shouldn’t raise the drawbridge or run away, but fight disease wherever we find it.
Travel restrictions have a long history as a tool against spreading infections. Quarantine was first used against the plague bacillus in 14th-century Europe. The case for plague quarantine was a lot stronger 600 years ago: It was pretty much the only potentially effective public health strategy at the time (neither prayer nor pogroms had the desired impact). The Black Death still exists—there were four cases of human infection in the U.S. in 2012—but we now have a vaccine against the disease. It can be treated with antibiotics, and sanitary and housing conditions in the 21st century are considerably higher than in Europe in the 1300s. The plague bacillus led to the deaths of tens of millions in the 14th century; it kills a few hundred people worldwide each year today.