No need to panic

The paranoia over Ebola reached dangerous levels last week when Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey imposed a mandatory quarantine rule on nurse Kaci Hickox, who registered a fever after returning to this country following a stay in West Africa to combat Ebola but had not contracted the virus.

Facing withering criticism and the possibility of a lawsuit, Mr. Christie relented this week and the nurse was transferred to her home in Maine on a private airplane. Still, his initial action, which wound up forcing Ms. Hickox to spend the weekend in a transparent tent with a sink and toilet but no shower, set a bad precedent.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York initially followed suit before backing off and allowing medical professionals who have been treating Ebola patients but show no symptoms of the disease to remain at home and receive compensation for lost income.

Even assuming the governors acted only with the best of intentions — when in doubt, err on the side of caution — and with no political motives, their actions were unjustified. The doctors, nurses and other health workers fighting to stop the spread of Ebola at the point of origin, in Africa, should be treated as selfless heroes rather than criminals.

Hostile measures against individuals who have no symptoms and may never develop any serve only to feed public hysteria, rather than to improve public health. Such actions also have counter-productive effects by limiting the number of potential responders to the emergency in West Africa.

As President Obama pointed out on Tuesday, the best way to contain Ebola, the optimal response to ensure minimal contagion in this country, is to stop it in its tracks where it began. That requires the presence of American medical workers on the front lines in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone.

These volunteers are leading the international response to a potential worldwide epidemic that spread initially precisely because of the lack of doctors, nurses and other resources.

Stigmatizing these selfless professionals after their return home acts as a deterrent to their involvement. It discourages active participation in the fight against Ebola at a time when they need and deserve encouragement.

And, by the way, extreme steps are not necessary. Only two people have contracted Ebola so far on American soil, the two Dallas nurses who treated a patient who became infected with the virus in West Africa. Today, both nurses are disease-free. Of the seven total Americans treated for Ebola so far, all have survived. These cases, serious as they are for the individuals involved, in no way justify imposing quarantines and resorting to other similar measures against an entire class of people who show no symptoms of disease.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott has issued an executive order that requires anyone returning from countries with Ebola outbreaks to be monitored twice a day for three weeks. This is broader than the Centers for Disease Control requirement of “direct, active monitoring” of those deemed to be at risk of contracting Ebola.

The precaution may be warranted, but as the actions in New Jersey and New York demonstrate, it’s important to keep politics out of the discussion.

Stopping Ebola is a public health issue. The government’s response should be based on science, not public fear. Ultimately, if American medical professionals are successful in stopping Ebola in Africa, the American people won’t have to worry about it here.