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Get proactive about screening for Ebola

By Rob Portman
updated 10:06 AM EDT, Thu October 9, 2014
A healthcare worker diagnosed with Ebola after returning from Sierra Leone is wheeled in a quarantine tent onto an airplane at Glasgow International Airport in Scotland on Tuesday, December 30, bound for The Royal Free hospital in London. Health officials say the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the deadliest ever. More than 6,000 people have died there, <a href='http://www.who.int/csr/disease/ebola/situation-reports/en/' target='_blank'>according to the World Health Organization.</a> A healthcare worker diagnosed with Ebola after returning from Sierra Leone is wheeled in a quarantine tent onto an airplane at Glasgow International Airport in Scotland on Tuesday, December 30, bound for The Royal Free hospital in London. Health officials say the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the deadliest ever. More than 6,000 people have died there, according to the World Health Organization.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rob Portman: Some common sense steps could help protect U.S. from Ebola
  • Portman: U.S. should shift from passive to active screening for Ebola at airports
  • He says simply asking good questions can help detect people who might be at risk
  • Portman: Administration must take proactive steps to prevent outbreak of Ebola cases

Editor's note: Rob Portman, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Ohio. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Sen. Portman will appear on CNN's "New Day" Thursday at 8:15 a.m.

(CNN) -- With the news that a Liberian citizen has been diagnosed with Ebola on U.S. soil, the Obama administration must finally act to ensure that the disease does not spread further.

For weeks, I have been calling upon the administration to take a robust, proactive approach to prevent Ebola from becoming a public health crisis here in the United States. These steps include appointing a single, accountable official to coordinate with the many agencies tasked with containing the Ebola epidemic, and moving from passive to active screening at U.S. ports of entry for all passengers traveling from countries with known outbreaks of Ebola.

Ebola prompts talk of enhanced screening

These common sense steps, while not foolproof, would go far in preventing an outbreak of Ebola and assuring the American people that their leaders are not taking the threat of this disease for granted.

Rob Portman
Rob Portman

The recent case of Ebola in Dallas is instructive. Currently, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), under the direction of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), engages in "passive" screening for Ebola. This means that CBP only stops travelers who are showing symptoms of Ebola. Carriers of Ebola who are not yet showing symptoms could enter the country without so much as a question about their potential contact with the disease.

Instead, we rely on government officials from West Africa to ask those kinds of questions at the point of departure. If they fail to do so or if the person lies on their exit form, there is nothing to stop infected individuals from traveling to the United States.

Can you catch Ebola on a plane?

Senator: U.S. needs screening for Ebola
Do airports need better Ebola screening?

This must change. Moving from passive to active screening would give the CBP the power to more thoroughly review international passengers before they are allowed into the United States.

Just as travelers are now asked where they have been, whether they are bringing in fruits or vegetables or have been in contact with livestock, travelers from West Africa would be asked if they were in contact with someone with Ebola, someone displaying symptoms of Ebola, or if they have any symptoms of Ebola. If the answer is yes or suspicions are raised, the passenger would be referred to CDC officials for additional questioning, medical screening and quarantine, if necessary.

CDC chief: U.S. can stop Ebola in its tracks

This particular patient in Dallas apparently did have contact with someone with Ebola and might well have been identified by active screening. This case proves that in today's global society, great distance will not prevent a disease like Ebola from spreading from Africa to the United States. It is only a few hours and a plane flight away. Now we need to think about the next case, not the last one, and what we can do to ensure that no more Americans are exposed unwittingly to this disease.

There's no reason to panic, but there's no reason to be complacent, either. President Obama told the American people that it was "unlikely" Ebola would reach our shores. We are now told that it is unlikely that Ebola will spread. But our government should not play the odds or rely on luck when it comes to the health and welfare of the American people.

This administration has a history of allowing manageable situations to spiral out of control before taking action. We can't be reactive when it comes to this disease. The administration must lead, and it must take proactive steps to ensure that the initial case of Ebola in the United States remains an isolated incident.

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