This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Would Banning Flights From Africa Keep Ebola Out of the U.S.?

There have been a lot of calls from politicians and others in the U.S. for a ban on flights from West Africa as a way of keeping Ebola out of the country. This proposed strategy comes despite the fact that the one African-origin person bringing Ebola into the U.S. (Thomas Duncan from Liberia) came to the U.S. by way of Brussels, not directly from West Africa. As a not-infrequent traveler to West Africa, my sense has been that there really aren't that many direct flights, and Nate Silver has confirmed that:
There are no regularly scheduled direct flights to the U.S. from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone — and very few from other countries in West Africa. There are far more flights from West Africa to Western Europe instead. Duncan’s case was typical. Before arriving in the United States, he connected through Brussels. [see map below]

By contrast, there are hundreds of flights per week to Western Europe from these countries. Paris is the top destination, with a total of 79 flights per week (counting flights on one route that is currently suspended but which may become available again by January). London has 43 weekly flights (again, counting onesuspended route). Brussels and Frankfurt have 26 each.
There are also flights from Africa to the Gulf States, from which connections can be made to the U.S. So, a travel ban is not going to make any sense. On the other hand, every country should carefully scrutinize any passenger whose trip originated in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea and make sure that the person has no symptoms. That is a global policy that does make sense.


  1. Prof Weeks ... good post and a tricky issue. You're right - there are not too many direct flights out of W.Africa. But it's certainly not hard for someone to find connecting flights.

    However - It think this boils down to the issue of the overall strategy of how to deal with Ebola. What you appear to be really asking is ... how do we deal with this outbreak? What is the overall plan? And the people who want flights from Africa banned directly - are really asking for strict quarantine measures. In some sense, I do not blame them for wanting a quarantine. The response of the West to this Ebola crisis has been half-hearted and not well informed.

    Imagine, for example, that you took the subway in New York and the person standing beside you looked ill and had beads of perspiration on their forehead. Would you just assume that they had the common cold?

    Our problem as "everyday people" is that we cannot determine where others have come from. They could have traveled from anywhere.

    I think there is a significant risk of global contagion - once the virus gets into the major international travel systems. Practically, this means that once Ebola-infected people get into the worlds major airports, the virus can go anywhere. Indeed, from the cases already known ... it is going to a lot of places!! It does make sense to me - to try to contain and isolate the virus so that infected people do not get into that global air transportation system.

    Hence I would propose much tighter screens against infected people at all the exit points of Africa. We dont have to exclude all travelers. But I think that it would have been a good strategy to try to ramp up the means to stop infected people from getting on planes and ships coming from Africa. In fairness to the USA and the CDC, they are already doing this. Some screens are in place. It's just that infected people are still "sneaking through". The system needs to be much more foolproof. I would have argued for a strategy that is based on "Isolate and Contain" to the African continent.

    It appears the US Administration feels this policy is difficult or impossible to implement. Which means that Ebola can get into the global airways system. And from there ... anywhere. It's an interesting world that we are living in !!

    regards, Pete Pollock, Redondo Beach

  2. BTW, Prof Weeks. One of the unresolved issues about Ebola ... is where there are any "asymptomatic carriers". In other words, are there some human beings who can have ebola in their system, not show any outwards signs of sickness, but still be able to transmit the virus to other people? Good question. If you go back and look at the old story of "Typhoid Mary" ... the woman had typhoid all of her life. She could transmit it to other people. Eventually they confined her to an island - to live there for the rest of her life. So are the some "Ebola Mary's" in the world? Very good question. I'm not sure that anyone knows the answer. But this may be part of the problem that is causing the experts to just "treat cases as they appear" (rather than a strict quarantine on all people).

    Pete, Redondo Beach, CA

  3. this article confirms that YES ... some people can carry the virus and show no outward signs. It also mentions that some epople are "super shedders" of Ebola.

    Pete, Redondo Beach