Even as the U.S government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) introduced new measures this week for travelers arriving from the Ebola-stricken countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, a large number of Republicans and a growing number of Democrats continued to call for an outright travel ban in what has become a hot-button political issue in the run-up to next week's midterm elections.
Amid election posturing, however, the unanswered question is: What would such a ban actually entail, and would it be effective?
For one, there are currently no non-stop commercial flights from Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea to any airport in the United States. All international flights out of Monrovia Roberts International Airport in Liberia, Freetown Lungi International Airport in Sierra Leone, and Conakry International Airport in Guinea transfer through other hubs either in Africa or Europe.
Delta Air Lines suspended its service to Monrovia in July, and Delta's SkyTeam Alliance partner Kenya Airways suspended service to Monrovia and Freetown in August. There has been a gradual decline in airlift to the impacted West African countries as the Ebola outbreak has worsened. The remaining carriers that still fly to Monrovia, Sierra Leone or Guinea are Air France, Brussels Airlines and Royal Air Maroc, as well as several regional carriers (see infographic for remaining flights into and out of the three countries; click here or on chart for larger view).
The calls for a ban on travel from the Ebola-stricken countries wouldn't be the first time a health-related travel ban has been put into place. In 1987, the U.S. banned people with HIV/AIDS from entering the U.S., a ban that lasted until 2009. But the proposed Ebola travel ban, as well as calls to restrict visas for people in the impacted countries, refers to all travelers from the three Ebola-stricken countries, whether sick or not.
Thus far, the Obama administration has resisted the idea of a travel ban based on the advice of the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) that have repeatedly stated that an outright travel ban would worsen rather than help the situation.
"Any discontinuation of transport will affect humanitarian aid, doctors, nurses and human resources entering the country, the transfer of biological sampling and equipment for hospitals. All of this needs international transporting, international airlines," Daniel Menucci, a representative for the WHO Travel and Transport Task Force, told the Washington Post. "This will create more problems in helping the countries most affected."
The calls to restrict travel from West Africa began after the emergence of the first three Ebola cases in the U.S., which originated with Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan, who came to the U.S. from Liberia. Before he died earlier this month, he infected two Dallas health care workers who had treated him.
Then, on Thursday, New York City officials confirmed that a physician recently returned from Guinea had been quarantined at New York's Bellevue Hospital with a confirmed case of Ebola.
Earlier that day, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) together with 28 Republican committee members submitted a letter to President Obama demanding further guidance as to why a travel ban wouldn't work.
"We share the interest of the American people in using the most effective tools -- including travel restrictions -- to prevent additional Ebola infections here in the U.S.," the letter stated. "Please advise whether the White House as any analysis or modeling relating to the claim that restricting travel of foreign-nationals from the Ebola-affected countries would increase the risk of importation of Ebola cases into the U.S."
The letter cited numerous concerns, including WHO projections that the number of new Ebola cases in West Africa could reach up to 10,000 per week by December if the outbreak isn't contained, and the risk of the U.S. importing additional Ebola cases.
As of this week, all passengers whose travel originated in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are now required to fly into one of five U.S. airports where enhanced screening measures, have been put into place the week before -- New York's JFK, New Jersey's Newark, Washington Dulles, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson and Chicago's O'Hare.
And travelers entering the U.S. on trips originating in Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone will now be monitored for Ebola-related symptoms for 21 days after their arrival, reflecting the 21-day incubation period for Ebola.
The CDC and DHS have said that around 150 people arrive daily in the U.S. from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. At press time, there were 9,911 cases of Ebola and 4,868 total Ebola deaths reported in those three countries, according to latest data from the World Health Organization.