Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Screening Travelers During the Ebola Outbreak

By Ellie PolitiPublished October 21, 2014

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The recent Ebola outbreak has resulted in over 3,000 casualties in West Africa and has forced the United States to spring to action regarding its screening process policies on U.S. soil. While some ardently support any means to prevent invasion of the Ebola virus, others recognize the limitations of the proposed screening process, pointing out the flaws in the test.

By Ellie Politi, 10/21/2014


With the latest Ebola outbreak this past month in Western Africa and its introduction into Texas, the U.S. has considered advancing the screening process in airports for those entering from affected countries. While measures have been taken to screen those leaving countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, there is contention as to what precautions the U.S. should employ to ensure the safety of its citizens.


According to The Star, President Obama has refused to impose a travel ban that would leave the affected countries isolated and without aid. As the Editorial Board of The New York Times states, a travel ban would prevent any international aid worker from returning home, discouraging help in the first place. While some fully support the increase of screening processes, others question the viability, reliability, and effectiveness of such measures. The test consists of measuring the temperature of passengers entering the U.S. and questioning their contact with those affected.

ABC cites a source that explains a logistical problem: most flights to the U.S. from African countries are not direct flights, so the passengers traveling from Ebola-stricken countries are flying in from a connecting flight from another country. The ambiguity of the origin of each passenger makes it difficult to distinguish those that are subject to a screening and those that are not.

CBC News mentions another problem regarding the reliability of the test: people are not always honest. In the case of Thomas Duncan, his deception led to the introduction of Ebola into the U.S. According to The New York Times, proponents of screening passengers once they land in the U.S. hope and suspect that these passengers will be less inclined to lie on a questionnaire since they have reached U.S. territory. Some have even suggested verbal inquiries with which people may be better able to discern deceit. The screeners rely and are dependent on the truthfulness of the passenger—whether it is regarding contact to the virus, as in Thomas Duncan's case, or the actual physical state of the passenger. For example, CBS News quotes a source questioning why someone would not just take ibuprofen to temporarily lower his or her fever to gain access to treatment in a life and death situation. This is a very plausible, if not understandable, malfeasance that threatens the employed strategy.

CBC News also mentions the problem of effectiveness of measuring temperature. Because the Ebola virus has an incubation period of 21 days, taking one's temperature does not signify that the person is not infected; rather it shows that the person has not begun to show symptoms of infection.

I would suggest a temporary travel ban for citizens of Ebola-stricken countries that would allow the transportation of aid workers. This would simultaneously enable Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea to receive help while ensuring the safety of American citizens. In regards to the screening process, I support the precautions proposed since taking one's temperature and asking questions are neither invasive nor harmful and could only help detect any sign of infection. Even though these means are far from foolproof, I believe it is the best possible plan that the U.S. can implement if it does not impose any kind of travel ban.