Ebola fears infect tropical medicine conference; state officials cite “abundance of caution”

Credit: Balint Radu

Credit: Balint Radu

To be clear: it’s not the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) that has problems with delegates from Ebola-affected countries who might actually shed some light on the epidemic at its annual meeting in New Orleans this week.

It’s the State of Louisiana that has pulled the welcome mat.

As reported today (3 November) in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere, the state sent a letter to conference registrants (through the ASTMH) last week asking anyone who has even visited the affected West African countries to stay away.

Specifically, state officials said “individuals who have traveled to and returned from” Sierra Leone, Liberia or Guinea in the past 21 days or have been in contact with a known Ebola patient to stay home.

They “should NOT travel to New Orleans to attend the conference,” said the letter  (including caps) from Kathy Kliebert, secretary of the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), and Kevin Davis, director of Governor Bobby Jindal’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness).

“Given that conference participants with a travel and exposure history for EVD [Ebola virus disease] are recommended not to participate in large group settings (such as this conference) or to utilize public transport, we see no utility in you traveling to New Orleans to simply be confined to your room,” they wrote, adding, “These precautions are being taken out of an abundance of caution for the current situation.”

Louisiana policy is  “outside of the scientific understanding of Ebola transmission.”  —American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene

The state officials seemed to acknowledge the wrong-headedness of the policy: “From a medical perspective, asymptomatic individuals are not at risk of exposing others; however, the State is committed to preventing any unnecessary exposure of Ebola to the general public…. In Louisiana, we love to welcome visitors, but we must balance that hospitality with the protection of Louisiana residents and other visitors.”

In a news release, the ASTMH said it disagrees with the policy, calling it “outside of the scientific understanding of Ebola transmission.”

The society noted that “each state within the U.S. has legal rights and responsibilities to set its own public health policy to meet perceived” but added, “ASTMH does not agree with the policy as outlined by the Louisiana DHH.

Credit: CDC/Frederick A. Murphy

Credit: CDC/Frederick A. Murphy

“The ASTMH Annual Meeting serves a much larger good, bringing scientists and dedicated professionals together from around the world to further the scientific discourse and ultimately improve the health of those suffering from disease,” it wrote, concluding that “ASTMH firmly believes the single best way to safeguard Americans and the world is to end the epidemic in West Africa.”

The state officials ended their letter with a  typical southern y’all-come-back: “We do hope that you will consider a future visit to New Orleans, when we can welcome you appropriately.”~TM

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2 responses

  1. François Boucher, MD | Reply

    Frankly, I do not think that this is unreasonable from the DOH.

    There is indeed some (low, but not zero…) risk that a delegate might come to the meeting during the period of incubation of the disease, who could then develop symptoms of the disease while staying in a local hotel and taking part in meetings and gatherings of numbers of other delegates. This could easily become a nightmare for health officials, and a PR disaster for health authorities.

    If any delegate, who did have contact with EVD, develops any fever during the conference, it could lead to widespread panic and the use of major public health resources for an intervention.

    I believe the DOH did the right thing in the circumstances, even if I detest the policy of exclusion.

  2. Thanks to Dr. Boucher for his valuable perspective.

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