Ebola has rapidly become a source of fear and debate, bringing concern as far as University of Wisconsin, where officials are making preparations for the unlikely event that the virus would reach Madison.
Airports are already imposing health screenings on international travelers and some members of U.S. Congress are asking officials to consider heavy travel restrictions, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.
Ron Machoian, UW’s International Safety and Security director, said that while International Academic Programs and UW administrators are monitoring Ebola situations abroad closely, IAP does not have any programs in the most affected countries in West Africa, so they have not had to make any changes.
“Actions taken at UW in response to the Ebola outbreak are best described as preparations that heighten the campus community’s awareness and knowledge of the circumstances and what is best done to prevent and mitigate the spread of communicable diseases of all types,” Machoian said.
Machoian said UW students are prohibited from traveling through university programs to countries in West Africa that are affected by the Ebola outbreak unless specifically given permission to do so.
Additionally, University Health Services has instituted very deliberate screening and monitoring processes for anyone returning to or visiting campus who has traveled to affected countries.
Professor Laura McLay in the Industrial and Systems Engineering Department said imposing travel restrictions is “a great and a bad way to contain the virus. It’s going to become a worldwide epidemic if people travel throughout the world, but at the same time people need to be able to travel throughout the world, which is why we need the security side of it.”
McLay, who has done research in traditional aviation security for terrorism, said she was excited about the way airports are handling Ebola containment.
“What they’re doing for Ebola is the opposite [of other types of airport security], it’s so simple and it’s incredibly effective,” McLay said. “A lot of it is very risk-based; they’re trying to identify the passengers that need the screening first.”
McLay said the process identifies certain flights that are higher risk, and asks passengers on those flights about their travel history. Officials then take the temperature of high-risk passengers, which is usually the first symptom of Ebola, and ask additional health questions to decide if they are fit to fly. McLay noted the simplicity and efficiency of this process as compared with the high-tech procedures to screen for terrorists.
Remington said the questions of travel bans are more based in politics than they are in science. He said scientists have sufficient evidence to believe Ebola can only be transmitted by direct contact with blood or bodily fluid and “the absolute risk of transmission in a casual interaction is extremely small.”
“As you can imagine, sometimes the science is overwhelmed by fear and by the perception that it’s better to do something than nothing,” Remington said.
Remington said that given the 30 or 40 years of research on transmission patterns of Ebola in Central and Western Africa, “we should be focusing on what we can do to contain the epidemic at its source.”
To Remington, it does not make sense to restrict travel to and from countries with high incidence of Ebola. If travel is restricted from a country, less people are going to go there to provide necessary medical aid.
“This is like a burning building,” Remington said. “It’s not good enough to tell people they can’t go in or out, you have to go to the source of the fire and put it out.”