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A Travel Ban To Contain The Coronavirus Could Worsen Conditions In Wuhan


China is taking some extraordinary measures in an effort to stop the spread of a potentially deadly coronavirus. The government has suspended travel in and out of some cities where the virus may be circulating. But as NPR science correspondent Joe Palca reports, these extreme steps might actually be counterproductive.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The Chinese outbreak started in the city of Wuhan. So it may seem obvious that if you want to keep a contagious virus from spreading from Wuhan to, say, Beijing, you simply ban people from traveling from Wuhan to Beijing. Obvious, yes, but public health experts will tell you that there are several reasons why it doesn't work.

CATHERINE WORSNOP: The first is that they may not actually be effective for stopping spread.

PALCA: Catherine Worsnop is at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. First of all, she says, travel bans don't work because they come too late.

WORSNOP: The bans were put in place after many people had already left Wuhan and other cities, so it had already had a chance to spread.

PALCA: You can't put a ban in place before there's a reason to put a ban in place. And by then, it's too late. What's more, Worsnop says people will try to sneak out of the city.

WORSNOP: That can make it much harder to track potential cases and contact, which is one of the most effective ways to contain this outbreak.

PALCA: And if you prevent people and goods from moving in or out of an affected city, shortages of food and medicine and medical equipment can occur. Worsnop says besides the practical problems travel bans cause, there are also psychological impacts.

WORSNOP: These extreme measures domestically have raised worries that the government has not actually been fully transparent about this outbreak.

PALCA: Worsnop says the Chinese government had been sending the message that things were pretty much under control. The surprising decision to implement extensive travel bans suggests just the opposite. And this can have ripple effects around the world.

WORSNOP: The worries about a lack of transparency could actually contribute to incentives that other countries already have to impose their own border measures.

PALCA: Worsnop says other countries may feel that they need to do something and may consider their own travel restrictions.

Lawrence Gostin is a professor of global health law at Georgetown University. He agrees a travel ban is not the solution to China's problems.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: I think it's a very significant mistake, and it will be counterproductive from a public health point of view.

PALCA: Gostin cites the experience with two other outbreaks, SARS and MERS, caused by a virus similar to the one that's cropped up in China.

GOSTIN: We never had lockdowns with all of those, but we brought them under control with traditional public health measures.

PALCA: Those include things like educating people about the symptoms of an infection with the virus, urging people to report such symptoms immediately and tracking those who come in contact with people who got sick.

There's one more key element to successfully responding to a disease outbreak. Don't panic. Gostin says that's especially true for people living in this country who might be worried about the outbreak in China.

GOSTIN: The risk is extraordinarily low for people in the United States.

PALCA: With reasonable precautions, Gostin says it should stay that way. And Catherine Worsnop says the situation in China is a reminder of something that's well known to anyone who works in public health.

WORSNOP: Prevention is more effective than response once an outbreak actually occurs.

PALCA: It's a lesson people seem to need to learn over and over and over.

Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
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