Stifling science: State officials threaten medical conferees with hotel quarantine

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When the annual conference of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene begins Sunday in New Orleans it will be missing some of the leading Ebola researchers and scientists.

Why?

They were disinvited by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. Misinformed officials with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals sent a letter to conference participants stating that those who have returned in the past 21 days from the African countries where Ebola is centered  — Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia — should not travel to New Orleans to attend the conference.

Their pronouncement was condescending: “ … we see no utility in you traveling to New Orleans to simply be confined to your room.”

The state’s mandate clearly exceeds the most recent guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and belies the fact that Ebola is not transmitted by casual contact.

Such dismissive language does New Orleans and Louisiana no service. Indeed it disgraces New Orleans as a city that needs to sustain a reputation for intelligent and incisive medical research, if it is to keep the medical world returning for the conventions that are a key part of our economic life blood.

Being a port city has been a boon for New Orleans, one that carries a burden. With international commerce comes international exposure to diseases that know no borders.

But New Orleans also has a long and rich history of research and success in overcoming tropical  diseases that used to plague the city, among them malaria, cholera and yellow fever. Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, which celebrated its centennial last year, was established in New Orleans because founders believed that tropical diseases are best studied in the environment in which they occur.

Now some of us who would ordinarily be responding to the African crisis — I had arranged to serve a stint with Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without borders, the international medical relief organization) — must scrap those plans because of the 21-day quarantine we would face upon return to Louisiana.

New Orleans had the opportunity to show once again that science and public health will overcome a tropical disease. Yet the state officials, without grounding their policy in science, are rejecting the contributions of individuals with Ebola expertise. We need these scientists. We should welcome them.

Lorelei Cropley, PhD, is a clinical associate professor of public health at Tulane.

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