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Some lawmakers urge restrictions on flights from Africa to stop Ebola

Ebola hearing in Dallas
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), left, and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) preside over a hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Securty on the federal, state and local response to the Ebola case in Dallas.
(Rodger Mallison / MCT)

Top health officials warned Friday that additional restrictions on travel to the U.S. from countries infected with Ebola would only cause the deadly disease to proliferate overseas and remain a global threat.

The remarks at a congressional hearing in Dallas, where the first person in the U.S. died from the disease, came as Congress quietly released $750 million that had been held up by lawmakers to fight the disease in West Africa.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the Homeland Security committee, and the state’s Republican Sen. John Cornyn asked that large airports in Houston and Dallas be added to the list of five that the federal government announced will begin screening arriving passengers as soon as this weekend.

“The American people are rightfully concerned,” McCaul said.

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Others, however, said more needs to be done to prevent the disease from entering the U.S., skeptical that customs officials who handle more than 1 million visitors a day would catch those who may be sick.

“I don’t want to shed all my rights to international travel more than anyone else, but we’ve got the obvious countries we should be skeptical of,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas). “Every outbreak novel or zombie movie you’ve ever seen starts with someone from the government sitting in front of a panel like this saying there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Hopefully the difference between the zombie films and this testimony is, this is real,” said Dr. Toby Merlin, director of preparedness and the emergency infections divisions at the Centers for Disease Control.

Federal officials explained that the Dallas patient, Thomas Eric Duncan of Liberia, did not fly directly from West Africa, but connected through Brussels.

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Preventing air travel would probably push the disease further into Africa, and prolong the outbreak for the “foreseeable future,” Merlin said.

“The risk in this country will not be eliminated until we eliminate the disease in Africa,” Merlin said.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) wondered aloud if state governors had the authority to close their airports to incoming flights if Washington failed to do so.

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