Ebola Lessons From Down Under: Quarantines And Containment Work

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New Zealand is a small island nation in the South Pacific. They take their biosecurity seriously according to Ministry for Primary Industries: “Pests and diseases pose serious threats to our economy, environment, health and cultural identity.”

Pets, for example, must go through a rigorous screening process before entering the country. They must come from “approved countries,” meaning those relatively free of rabies. A veterinary exam is required, vaccinations must be up to date, and the pet must be quarantined for a minimum of ten days at a government-approved facility.

Compare this to how the U.S. government is handling Ebola. Travel to and from endemic countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone remains unrestricted, unlike in Europe where British Airways and Air France have suspended flights to these countries. Many African nations are responding to the Ebola outbreak, “by cancelling flights and closing borders.” Saudi Arabia instituted a travel ban for West African Muslims attending the Hajj pilgrimage. Instead the so-called “Ebola experts” here justify unrestricted travel based on 200-year-old guilt over slavery, ignoring the realities of communicable disease transmission.

Rather than apply common sense public health measures, the president is applying a healthy dose of politics in response to Ebola. This past July, the administration had no problem suspending flights to and from Israel. But not for Ebola. The head of the CDC Thomas Frieden justifies open travel under the belief that, “Many other people that have the right to enter this country.” Really? What right is that? The same “right” that everyone from anywhere has a right to cross our Southern border? Bringing a potpourri of diseases? Do Americans have any “right” to expect their government protect their homeland? President Obama believes, “health insurance is now a ‘right’ in the United States.” Is it also a right of Americans to avoid exposure to fatal infectious diseases?

Back to politics. The border and amnesty are politics, a gigantic Democrat voter registration drive. How can the president close our borders to Ebola while leaving our Southern border wide open? A political conundrum. The open Southern border may be the cause of the recent Enterovirus D68 infection and a surge in paralysis in children. Common sense dictates a secure border, especially in the face of new infectious diseases cropping up in America. But political considerations trump public health.

Meanwhile suspected Ebola cases are popping up all over the country. The CDC is responding to 100 potential Ebola cases since the first case in Dallas last week. What’s a potential case? Anyone with flu-like symptoms who was recently in West Africa. As we approach winter, emergency rooms will be inundated with patients having the flu. Normally no big deal, but now if the patient’s travel history includes Western Africa, expensive and cumbersome quarantine procedures must be implemented. The time and energy devoted to these sick patients pulls already strained resources from existing hospital patients.

The easier solution is to cut off Ebola at its source by restricting travel into the U.S. from infection hot spots. Instead by allowing infected patients into the U.S., healthcare resources are strained and needless panic ensues. And once infected individuals are here, what is to prevent the bumbling bureaucracy from mishandling these patients allowing further disease spread? Even the normally supportive Washington Post has been critical of how the outbreak has been handled.

Smallpox was eradicated through a combination of, “Vaccination campaigns, surveillance, and prevention measures aimed to contain epidemic hotspots.” There is no Ebola vaccine yet, leaving surveillance and containment as the best measures. Unrestricted travel and empty promises from government agencies is quite the opposite.

Back to New Zealand, a country taking its biosecurity seriously. What lessons can we learn from down under? Limit travel from endemic areas. Make sure sick individuals aren’t entering the U.S. And if in doubt, institute a short quarantine to be sure entrants aren’t infected with Ebola or other communicable diseases. Quarantines are not new. In the mid 1800s, all ships entering New York Harbor were subject to quarantine.

Instead the administration dithers and wrings its hands guiltily over past slavery and political correctness as a reason to avoid common sense public health measures. A leading news agency predictably finds “implicit racism” in the Ebola outbreak. This is allowing the disease to reach epidemic proportions beyond even the expectations of the CDC and WHO. Recently President Obama spoke with a sense of urgency about combating a “growing threat … before it’s too late.” Unfortunately he was talking about global warming, not Ebola.

Brian C Joondeph, MD, MPS is a Denver based physician who lived in New Zealand for several years with his family and a pet. Twitter @retinaldoctor.