Health Officials Urged Attendees to Skip New Orleans Conference

HIL ANDERSON, SENIOR EDITOR
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New Orleans, LA – Louisiana state health officials took a firm stance on travel restrictions to prevent the spread of Ebola in the U.S. this Fall by urging attendees from West Africa to skip a major medical conference in New Orleans.

The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) held its 63rd Annual Meeting in New Orleans November 2-6, and the Ebola crisis was a hot topic of discussion among physicians, researchers and other healthcare professionals who specialize in Ebola and other dreaded diseases of equatorial areas.

A letter dated October 28 from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) was mailed directly to attendees advising them to “NOT travel to New Orleans to attend the conference” if they had contact with Ebola patients or travelled to three nations at the epicenter of the outbreak in the previous 21 days.

Those attendees with such histories who ignored the state’s advice were warned they would be quarantined, the agency warned. “Given that conference participants with a travel and exposure history for EVD (Ebola Virus Disease) are recommended not to participate in large group settings (such as this conference) or to utilize public transport, we see no utility in you travelling to New Orleans to simply be confined to your (hotel) room,” the letter said.

Conference organizers responded with a statement on October 30. The ASTMH said they did not agree with the Louisiana policy, but would abide by it and offer a full refund to any participant who was forced to cancel their trip. “While the state of Louisiana’s policies are outside of the scientific understanding of Ebola transmission – and acknowledged by the state health officials’ own admission – we recognize that the state has determined its policy in this matter,” the ASTMH said. “ASTMH does not agree with the policy outlined by the Louisiana DHH.”

The DHH indeed acknowledged in its letter that its restrictions were over and above the guidelines on travelers issued by the federal government. But, the state said it was prudent to act with an “abundance of caution” even if it might impact New Orleans’ tourism industry. “In Louisiana, we love to welcome visitors, but we must balance that hospitality with the protection of Louisiana residents and other visitors,” the letter said.

The ASTMH meeting took place as scheduled. The association did not immediately say how many cancellations resulted from the DHH’s warning.

Although medical experts have said Ebola does not spread through the air like flu and colds, the spread of EVD in Africa and the infection of a handful of U.S. healthcare workers has increased the level of wariness in the U.S.

The International Association of Exhibitions and Events and U.S. Travel Association have been monitoring the government’s response to Ebola and generally backed its recommendations, including screening at airports of passengers arriving from West Africa and resisting bans on international travel.

Reach Lyn Maddox, ASTMH conference director, at (847) 480-9592 or lmaddox@astmh.org; Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, at (202) 408-8422 or rdow@ustravel.org