Are travel bans effective at stopping outbreaks like the coronavirus?

SEATTLE — The unique coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China has caused many countries to issue travel bans or restrictions on movement to and from China. Travel bans and restrictions are commonly imposed to curb the spread of emerging infectious diseases. But, a study of published research by scientists at the University of Washington and Johns Hopkins University found that the effectiveness of these travel restrictions is undetermined.

The novel coronavirus is indeed deadly and incredibly infectious. By most estimates, the virus has infected tens of thousands of people, killed hundreds, and spread to at least 24 other countries. It’s for that reason that a travel ban would seemingly be an appropriate measure against the rapidly spreading ailment.

UW Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences lecturer Nicole Errett, the lead author of the study, says that she and her colleagues didn’t know much about the effectiveness of travel bans because very little research on their efficiency had been performed.

“Some of the evidence suggests that a travel ban may delay the arrival of an infectious disease in a country by days or weeks. However, there is very little evidence to suggest that a travel ban eliminates the risk of the disease crossing borders in the long term,” says Errett in a media release.

The research team identified published articles that analyzed the effectiveness of travel bans directly intended to reduce the geographic impact of the Ebola virus, SARS, MERS, and the Zika virus, all of which were serious health scares in recent years. To find these articles, the team sorted through thousands of databases.

Of the large body of articles about the spread of viruses worldwide, the researchers found only six that fit their criteria. The conclusions of all six were based on models and simulations designed to assess the effectiveness of travel bans in containing viral outbreaks. The researchers said that to improve further study in this area, research questions, partnerships, and specific study protocols should be established before the next outbreak so that empirical data can be collected.

“Travel bans are one of several legal options that governments have drawn on to mitigate a pandemic,” adds co-author Lainie Rutkow, professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins. “As coronavirus spreads, our study raises the importance of understanding the effectiveness of legal and policy responses intended to protect and promote the public’s health.”

The research team called for more research into the effectiveness of travel bans and other methods of containing infectious diseases.

The study is published in the Journal of Emergency Management.

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Ben Renner

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