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Scientists Who Traveled to Ebola-Infected Countries Are Being Asked to Skip a Big Tropical Medicine Meeting

Researchers from the frontline of the fight against Ebola must cancel their plans to attend an upcoming conference in New Orleans

President Obama discussing Ebola at a meeting with the UN. (Photo: Anthony Behar/pool/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

At least several scientists had to cancel plans to attend this year's meeting of the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, scheduled to take place this weekend in New Orleans. The reason? They visited an Ebola-infected country within the last 21 days or came in contact with an Ebola-infected patient within that time frame.

As ScienceNOW reports, the decision came from Louisiana's state health officials, who want to take no chances that some of those scientists might be carrying the disease and could spread it at the meeting. As they wrote in a letter distributed by email: "Given that conference participants with a travel and exposure history for [Ebola] 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." 

Not surprisingly, those affected are not pleased. Most agree that there is no scientific basis to support the decision. Here's some of their reactions, as reported in ScienceNOW: 

"This policy is fundamentally flawed and not evidence-based," says Daniel Bausch, a researcher at Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans who is the organizer of one of two specialized Ebola symposia at the meeting.

"It's very unfortunate and could potentially be counterproductive by preventing health care workers from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea from sharing their experiences and findings at one of the most important tropical disease meetings globally," adds Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

The health officials themselves acknowledge that asymptomatic individuals cannot transmit the disease, ScienceNOW continues, but say that they're nevertheless putting the ban in place as precautionary measure.

Still, they add, their decision not to let the researchers attends "certainly [does] not reflect a lack of appreciation for your service and sacrifice in efforts to treat and end the [Ebola] epidemic." Given that scientific meetings are important opportunities for researchers to exchange ideas, form collaborations and discuss current real-world problems, however, the decision not to let key players in that battle against Ebola attend could hamper efforts to end the Ebola epidemic. 

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