POLITICS

Top Senator On African Affairs: Ebola Medical Workers Should Be Guaranteed Return To U.S.

Rep. Chris Coons, D-Del., right, accompanied by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., talks about the Palestinian effort to seek UN r
Rep. Chris Coons, D-Del., right, accompanied by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., talks about the Palestinian effort to seek UN recognition of statehood, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs is calling on the United States to ensure that all Americans who go to West Africa to help fight Ebola be guaranteed the right to return to their home country, attempting to push back on some of the calls from his colleagues for a ban on travel from the region.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told The Huffington Post that it was important to ensure that Americans don't feel discouraged from going to West Africa to treat Ebola patients. Instead, they should receive proper medical attention in the United States, if required, and receive compensation for their lost time at work if they need to be quarantined.

"The only way we can truly keep Americans safe here at home ... is to continue to work hard to fight Ebola where it's broken out in the now four West African countries where it has taken off and where it has threatened tens of thousands," he said. "So only by getting more Americans and more international citizens to volunteer as doctors and nurses and health care workers in West Africa do we have any hope of bending the curve of infection and of containing Ebola in West Africa."

Coons' comments come as an increasing number of governors are implementing Ebola quarantine policies that go beyond what medical experts have called for. President Barack Obama has responded to some of the panic and overreaction by making a point to publicly embrace health care workers helping in the West Africa hot zone.

"We don't want to discourage our health care workers from going to the front lines and dealing with this in an effective way," Obama said Tuesday. "We have to make sure that we continue to provide the support of health workers who are going overseas to deal with the disease where it really has been raging."

The issue has also been swept up in the 2014 midterm elections, with Ebola increasingly mentioned in campaign ads.

When asked whether he believed some of the overreaction to Ebola by politicians was due to politics, Coons conceded it may be true.

"I would hate to think that election concerns are driving the decision of those who are charged with our public health, but I do think that if you look at the numbers, it's hard to explain these actions otherwise," he said.

The fear-mongering has had real effects for people around the country. Americans traveling to and from African countries -- even ones that are Ebola-free and thousands of miles from the affected area -- have faced discrimination, distrust, harassment and calls for self-quarantines.

Coons also said he worries that the incessant focus on Ebola is crowding out attention to other issues affecting the African continent.

"I spoke [on Tuesday] to an ambassador from an East African country trying to advance a trade issue that is of real interest to agriculture in my state. And she commented that there is a great concern on the African continent that out of 54 countries on the continent, only four are currently affected by Ebola, and the other 50 continue to have, in many cases, great economic promise for partnership with the United States and many other concerns -- security concerns, economic concerns, development concerns that we should be addressing," he said.

Coons added that he expects the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold a hearing on Ebola within weeks of returning after the fall recess.

"We haven't yet fully resolved which of the topics that we could address will be done at the full committee and which will be done at the subcommittee. ... My hunch is -- and this is just a hunch -- that the full committee will do a hearing promptly upon our return that focuses on Ebola response and the current U.S. response and the international response, and the subcommittee will do a hearing on the broader regional context," he said.

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BEFORE YOU GO

  • 1 Ebola is highly infectious and even being in the same room as someone with the disease can put you at risk
    Not as far as we know. <a href="http://www.who.int/features/2014/ebola-myths/en/" target="_blank">Ebola isn't contagious unti
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Not as far as we know. Ebola isn't contagious until symptoms begin, and it spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of patients. It is not, from what we know of the science so far, an airborne virus. So contact with the patient's sweat, blood, vomit, feces or semen could cause infection, and the body remains infectious after death. Much of the spread in west Africa has been attributed to the initial distrust of medical staff, leaving many to be treated at home by loved ones, poorly equipped medics catching the disease from patients, and the traditional burial rites involving manually washing of the dead body. From what we know already, you can't catch it from the air, you can't catch it from food, you can't catch it from water.
  • 2 You need to be worried if someone is sneezing or coughing hard
    Apart from the fact that sneezing and coughing aren't generally thought to be symptoms of Ebola, the disease is not airborne,
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Apart from the fact that sneezing and coughing aren't generally thought to be symptoms of Ebola, the disease is not airborne, so unless someone coughed their phlegm directly into your mouth, you wouldn't catch the disease. Though medical staff will take every precaution to avoid coming into contact with the body of an infected person at all costs, with stringent hygiene there should be a way to contain the virus if it reaches the UK.
  • 3 Cancelling all flights from west Africa would stop the spread of Ebola
    This actually has pretty serious implications. British Airways suspended its four-times-weekly flights to Liberia and Sierra
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    This actually has pretty serious implications. British Airways suspended its four-times-weekly flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone until the end of March, the only direct flight to the region from the UK. In practice, anyone can just change planes somewhere else and get to Britain from Europe, north Africa, or the Middle East. And aid agencies say that flight cancellations are hampering efforts to get the disease under control, they rely on commercial flights to get to the infected regions. Liberia's information minister, Lewis Brown, told the Telegraph this week that BA was putting more people in danger. "We need as many airlines coming in to this region as possible, because the cost of bringing in supplies and aid workers is becoming prohibitive," he told the Telegraph. "There just aren't enough seats on the planes. I can understand BA's initial reaction back in August, but they must remember this is a global fight now, not just a west African one, and we can't just be shut out." Christopher Stokes, director of MSF in Brussels, agreed: “Airlines have shut down many flights and the unintended consequence has been to slow and hamper the relief effort, paradoxically increasing the risk of this epidemic spreading across countries in west Africa first, then potentially elsewhere. We have to stop Ebola at source and this means we have to be able to go there.”
  • 4 Temperature screening at airports is an effective way to stop those who have the disease from travelling
    The screening process is pretty porous, especially when individuals <i>want</i> to subvert it. Wake up on the morning of your
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    The screening process is pretty porous, especially when individuals want to subvert it. Wake up on the morning of your flight, feel a bit hot, and you definitely don't want to be sent to an isolation booth for days and have to miss your flight. Take an ibuprofen and you can lower your temperature enough to get past the scanners. And if you suspect you have Ebola, you might be desperate to leave, seeing how much better the treatment success has been in western nations. And experts have warned that you cannot expect people to be honest about who they have had contact with. Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola victim who died in Texas, told officials he had not been in contact with anyone with the disease, but had in fact visited someone in the late stages of the virus, though he said he believed it was malaria. The extra screening that the US implemented since his death probably wouldn't have singled out Duncan when he arrived from hard-hit Liberia last month, because he had no symptoms while travelling.
  • 5 Border staff should stop people coming in to the country who are at risk
    They're not doctors, and it's a monumental task to train 23,500 people who work for the UK Border Agency how to correctly dia
    LEON NEAL via Getty Images
    They're not doctors, and it's a monumental task to train 23,500 people who work for the UK Border Agency how to correctly diagnose a complex disease, and spot it in the millions of people who come through British transport hubs. Public Health England has provided UK Border Force with advice on the assessment of an unwell patient on entry to UK, but they can't be expected to check everyone.
  • 6 Screening at British airports should be implemented to stop unwell people coming in from affected areas
    As mentioned before, the UK, especially London, is a major transport hub. Unlike the US, most of those coming from west Afric
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    As mentioned before, the UK, especially London, is a major transport hub. Unlike the US, most of those coming from west Africa will have crossed through Europe, so infected people could be coming from practically anywhere, not just flights directly from those countries. This would require the UK to screen every returning traveller, as people could return to the UK from an affected country through any port of entry. This would be huge numbers of low risk people, at vast, vast expense.
  • 7 Ebola doesn't have a cure
    There are several cures currently being tested for Ebola. They include the ZMapp vaccine which was administered to British su
    John Moore via Getty Images
    There are several cures currently being tested for Ebola. They include the ZMapp vaccine which was administered to British sufferer William Pooley and two other Americans who caught the disease in west Africa and they all recovered. Supplies of the drug have now run dry, and it has not been through clinical trials to prove its effectiveness. Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the company that makes ZMapp, says the drug's supplies are exhausted and that it takes months to make even a small batch. But an Ebola cure is very much on the horizon, and would have come sooner had it been seen as any kind of priority for drug companies before it started reaching the western world.
  • 8 Ebola is a death sentence
    It is true that certain strains of Ebola have had a death rate of 90%. However, with this particular epidemic the stats are m
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    It is true that certain strains of Ebola have had a death rate of 90%. However, with this particular epidemic the stats are more positive, a death rate of around 60%. Those who have decent, strong immune systems, are able to access intravenous fluids and scrupulous health care are far more likely to survive, which is why the survival rate of westerners who contract the disease is far better. Experts have suggested that, rather than waste money on pointless airport screenings, funds could be used to improve infrastructure in the affected nations to help halt the spread of the disease at source.
  • 9 Ebola turns you into a zombie
    Just,<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/10/06/ebola-zombie-risen-dead-viral-hoax_n_5937728.html" target="_blank">
    Renee Keith via Getty Images
    Just, no.
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