- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A ban on travel between West Africa and the U.S. to contain Ebola would stigmatize Liberia, scare off much-needed aid workers and discourage investors from propping up its battered economy, the country’s ambassador to the U.S. said Wednesday.

Liberians also might cross the region’s porous borders and find their way to American shores from countries that are not on the ban list, Ambassador Jeremiah C. Sulunteh told The Washington Times.

“Every time I’ve had the occasion to talk to the public, I’ve told them, ‘Please help us to isolate Ebola, but don’t isolate the countries that are affected,’” he said.

His remarks pushed back against a movement in Congress to impose a ban on travel from hard-hit countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

President Obama has resisted those calls.

All sides are looking for ways to prevent a further breakout of the disease.

“Why don’t we have a world effort to keep the disease in those three countries — flood resources, flood heroes, go to treat them?” Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, said Wednesday at a Senate homeland security hearing on Ebola.

Mr. Sulunteh said the key to halting the spread of the disease is to establish strict monitoring at the point of departure from West Africa and point of arrival in the U.S., and to impose self-quarantine when warranted.

Travelers visiting family in the U.S. for the holidays should keep their distance at first, he said. In his D.C. circle, it is not uncommon for his traveling colleagues to keep their distance for a couple weeks before coming around the embassy.

“I don’t mind going to 21 days of quarantine, or vigorous testing at the airport on arrival,” he said. “But to say ‘ban travel from those countries’ is to stigmatize them. We’re not responsible for this virus, we don’t know where it comes from. No Liberian will yearn for Ebola.”

The ambassador spoke to the Times ahead of a summit on the Ebola outbreak hosted by the Universal Peace Federation, a non-government organization that promotes peace through “universal spiritual and moral values.”

In his remarks, Mr. Sulunteh said the world cannot let Ebola set his country back after its triumph over civil war and turmoil, and he heaped praise on the U.S. for dedicating resources and troops toward the containment and recovery effort.

“We feel strongly — with the signs we see — if help had come earlier, maybe by this time we would have contained the virus,” he said. “It’s better late that never, but we are seeing some decline, which is good.”

Liberia has suffered nearly half of the Ebola cases to hit West Africa, or about 6,800 suspected or confirmed instances out of roughly 14,400, according to International SOS, a global aid group that is tracking transmission.

While nearly all Liberian cases were fatal back in June, the death rate now rests between a quarter and half of the cases, the group’s data show.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf this week set a goal of seeing no new cases of Ebola by Christmas.

The ambassador said he is “cautiously optimistic” that his country is turning the tide against the virus, which has killed more than 5,000 in the region.

“The important thing is for the citizens to follow the rules,” he said.

He said Liberians should not form large gatherings or touch infected persons, and they must bury loved ones safely.

Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cheered advances in Liberia on Wednesday, but warned of challenges ahead.

“In Liberia, we’ve seen now proof of principle — that it’s possible to stop the exponential increase that we were seeing before,” Dr. Frieden told senators. “But we’re still seeing hundreds of new cases per week and we need to step back and remember that a year ago even a dozen cases would be appropriately considered to be a major emergency. So we’re nowhere near out of the woods. We have much further to go.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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