State defends letter sent to conference of tropical medicine experts

State defends letter sent to conference of tropical medicine experts

Thousands of tropical medicine experts will fill the Sheraton and Marriott hotels on Canal Street starting Sunday, but Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals is making global headlines over its decision to ask some would-be attendees to stay home.

DHH Secretary Kathy Kliebert and Kevin Davis, Director of the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness signed the letter.

"Individuals who have traveled to and returned from the countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia or Guinea in the past 21 days, or have had contact with a known EVD (Ebola Virus Disease) patients in that time period, should NOT travel to New Orleans to attend the conference," said the letter, dated Oct. 28.

On Thursday, Dr. Jimmy Guidry of the DHH, who is also the state health officer, defended the department's stance.

"We were trying to work with the organization and really reached out to them and asked, can you tell us who's coming? And were they exposed to Ebola? And they said they had no way of knowing," Guidry said.

He said it was only fair to take the same approach with conference attendees as the state is taking with its own citizens, and that is asking them to quarantine for 21 days if they have been in contact with an Ebola-infected patient.

"Here's a large group of folks coming from all over the country and all over the world, and I have no knowledge of what exposure they may have had, so we sent the letter out saying if you've been exposed to Ebola or been in an Ebola country in the past 21 days could you please not attend the conference," Guidry said. Now, I didn't want to do that, but it's the safest way I can think of for preventing people from being exposed to something."

But the organization holding the conference is not pleased.

"I think the primary response is one of disappointment. Certainly it's not the kind of letter one wants to send out to over 4,000 attendees just a few days before they're ready to get on a flight," said Dr. Alan Magill, president of the ASTMH and director of the Malaria efforts for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Magill is already in the city preparing for the conference.

"Well, yes I think most people would say that, you know, see a policy that does not have a solid basis in science, so as scientists that's always very troubling perspective, but we recognize the world isn't all just science, there's perception and the politics behind this," Magill said.

He said members of the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control could be affected since the Ebola epidemic will be discussed during the conference, which runs through Nov. 6.

Bill Gates will address the conference as part of his global foundation, but could not provide a firm number of attendees who would be affected by DHH's request.

"Based on the immediate feedback that we've gotten and questions from folks in the last few days, it's hard to say, but at least 100 or more are going to be affected by this would be my best guess at this time," Guidry said.

"The request is precautionary and in our opinion maybe something a little too precautionary, in our opinion," said Tara LeTort, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

She said the conference is important to city tourism.

"They're solution-driven individuals that are coming in. What better conference to come in this weekend?" said Letort.

Tourism is the bread and butter of the city's economy.

"There's certainly today some members of the society, there is an emotional response that says we should never come back to New Orleans again," said Magill.

But he said it will be months before a decision is made on whether to exclude New Orleans from hosting future conferences. And he said the state's response could actually fuel the hysteria that a lot of people have concerning how you actually get Ebola.

"Yes, I think it does. In settings like this, fear is virtually always the result of no knowledge, right? You're scared because you don't know."

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