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Oct. 29 (Bloomberg) -- The head of the World Health Organization slammed policies introduced in the U.S. and Australia that restrict the movement of people, saying it doesn’t help prevent Ebola’s spread.
Measures like compulsory quarantine for people arriving from Ebola-affected countries threaten local economies while doing little to curb the disease that’s killed 70 percent of the 13,700 people it’s known to have sickened in West Africa, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said in an interview.
“I understand the fear in the community, but the fear factor is way too high and out of proportion to the risk,” Chan said from her office in Geneva. Her comments mark a departure from the WHO’s routine statements, which use neutral language to advise against travel or trade restrictions.
After a New York doctor was diagnosed with the Ebola virus last week, governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey announced policies requiring 21-day quarantines for anyone returning from a country facing an Ebola outbreak who may have had contact with patients. Australia said on Oct. 28 it will temporarily suspend visas for travelers from countries battling the deadly virus.
“We have learned from past experience managing many, many outbreaks that travel bans will not stop cases coming to your borders,” Chan said. “The best option is heightened surveillance, heightened vigilance, as well as heightened preparedness so that you’re ready should an imported case arrive at your doorstep.”
No Further Damage
Under pressure to respond to concern in the community that Ebola may be introduced by travelers, more governments may adopt policies that aren’t based on science, Chan said. In a highly connected world, disrupting the mass movement of people, goods and services hurts development, business and education, she said.
“People are sometimes under pressure, governments are under pressure, to just follow suit,” Chan said. “We need to do our utmost to curtail unnecessary actions that will cause further damage.”
Australia’s government is temporarily suspending immigration programs, including humanitarian intake, for countries affected by Ebola, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told parliament on Oct. 28.
“We are not processing any application from these affected countries,” he said.
Australia is ensuring all prior humanitarian entrants have had three health checks before their departure, are screened on arrival and monitored thereafter, he said. Other permanent visa holders who have not yet arrived in Australia are required to submit to a 21-day quarantine period prior to their departure, according to Morrison.
Chan isn’t alone in her view. The aid group Doctors Without Borders says mandatory quarantine for people showing no signs of infection isn’t justified. People with Ebola are not contagious until they get sick, and the virus isn’t airborne, it’s transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids.
Kaci Hickox was kept in a tent at a New Jersey hospital after returning from treating patients in Sierra Leone. She is refusing to follow isolation orders in her home state of Maine.
“I remain appalled by these home-quarantine policies that have been forced upon me, even though I am in perfectly good health and feeling strong and have been this entire time completely symptom-free,” Hickox said today in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show. Hickox wouldn’t have emerged from Maine’s 21-day quarantine until Nov. 10.
Period of Confusion
Quarantine will undermine efforts to curb the epidemic at its source in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, according to Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French acronym MSF.
Hickox carried out “important, life-saving work for MSF in a number of countries in recent years, and we are proud to have her as a member of our organization,” the medical-aid group said. “MSF respects Kaci’s right as a private citizen to challenge excessive restrictions.”
At least 5,000 visiting medical workers are needed at any one time to help control Ebola’s spread, and staff needs to rotate to stay effective, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said at a briefing yesterday, which was also attended by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
“The best way for any country to protect itself from Ebola is to stop the outbreak at its source in West Africa,” Ban said in an Oct. 27 statement.
Being anxious about Ebola is understandable, Chan said.
“There will always be a period of confusion no matter what the scientific and public health people say at the beginning,” she said. “Gradually you just keep repeating the right messages and with the right level of education, people will moderate” their response.
--With assistance from Simeon Bennett in Geneva.
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