What Travelers Should Know About Ebola

In light of the recent Ebola scare, travelers are increasingly become more concerned about leaving the country. According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, relatively few of the 350 million travelers who enter the United States every year come from the three West African countries hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic:  Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea

Thus, a travel ban could potentially cause more harm than good. Firstly, it could make the outbreak worse in West Africa by hindering international medical response. Senegal’s decision to stop flights, for example, prevented African Union health workers from entering Liberia, thereby making it more difficult to trump the spread of the disease elsewhere. In the long run, this is counterproductive as it increases the risk to Senegal. Similarly, if the United States chooses to do the same, it could put itself in a worse position by allowing the outbreak in West Africa to get more severe.

According to the World Health Organization, the risk of contracting Ebola by flying in the same plane as an infected person is also extremely low. Someone who isn’t showing symptoms isn’t infectious and unlike Tuberculosis, which is spread by air, the Ebola virus is contracted through contact with bodily fluids, such as blood or vomit.

Despite this, however, several precautions are still being taken in airports. All travelers leaving Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea, for example, are systemically screened for Ebola. Before boarding a flight, passengers must fill out travel health questionnaires and are checked for symptoms, such as high body temperatures (101.5 degree Fahrenheit, 38.6 degrees Celsius or higher). In U.S. airports, Customs and Border Protection personnel also watch for “overt signs of illness” and hand out fact sheets to travelers returning from countries affected by Ebola.

These procedures, however, can actually be counterproductive for several reasons. Firstly, due to the lengthy incubation period of Ebola, passengers may be unaware that they are infected or could very easily lie about their contact with the virus. Infected patients from West Africa, for example, might even have an incentive to lie in order enter the U.S. to utilize its medical faculties. Additionally, passengers can easily lower temperatures by taking common prescription drugs and airport personnel are often not properly trained to spot the disease.