It’s election season, the time when over-the-top statements about a wide variety of issues occur on a daily basis. Combine that with nationwide panic about a disease the public is largely misinformed about, and you get our current predicament — politicians making irresponsible statements that have the potential to inspire even more hysteria about the outbreak.
Some political analysts have even called the Ebola outbreak the midterm election’s “October surprise” as candidates use the current fear and anxiety to their advantage. Here’s what politicians have said to strike fear in Americans’ hearts about Ebola:
1. Ebola is more contagious than AIDS.
On Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who has a medical degree, told CNN’s Ashley Killough that Ebola is much more contagious than the government is making it out to be. “They say it’s the exchange of bodily of fluids. Which makes people think, ‘Oh, it’s like AIDS. It’s very difficult to catch,” he said. “If someone has Ebola at a cocktail party they’re contagious and you can catch it from them,” Paul continued. “[The administration] should be honest about that.”
Yes, you can technically catch Ebola from someone at a cocktail party, but the odds of it happening are extremely low. A contagious (and therefore symptomatic) Ebola carrier is very unlikely to be attending parties given the seriousness of the disease. They would be the person in the corner excreting all kinds of bodily fluids. HIV is in fact twice as contagious as Ebola, with the average carrier transmitting the virus to four people compared to Ebola’s average of two.
2. Ebola may have already gone airborne.
During a congressional hearing on Ebola on Thursday, former nurse and and now House Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) seemed to suggest that the virus has already mutated and gone airborne. Referring to the two nurses who caught Ebola from Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died in a Dallas hospital last week, Ellmers said, “When the nurses were using protective gear, how has this happened? It tells me something has happened here. You said a couple of times this has not gone airborne. Are you looking for other mutations? I know how nurses are. They followed precautions.”
In response, CDC Director Tom Frieden replied curtly, “We are confident this was not an airborne transmission.”
Most infectious disease experts remain confident that Ebola will not mutate to become airborne. In the 100 years that scientists have been studying human viruses, none has ever changed the way that it’s transmitted. “Speculation that Ebola virus disease might mutate into a form that could easily spread among humans through the air is just that: speculation, unsubstantiated by any evidence,” the World Health Organization said this week.
3. Ebola might be used as a terror weapon.
Several politicians have combined the two biggest fears of the moment to peddle the mother of all fictional threats: ISIS using Ebola as a bio-weapon. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WY) has said that ISIS terrorists flying into the U.S. with Ebola is “a real and present danger.” In the same vein, Scott Brown, the former Republican Senator from Massachusetts who is now running in New Hampshire, is very worried that terrorists with Ebola will sneak into the country through Mexico. “We have a border that’s so porous that anyone can walk across it,” he said. “I think it’s naive to think that people aren’t going to be walking through here who have those types of diseases and/or other types of intent, criminal or terrorist.” Going one step further, Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AK) suggested in a recent town hall meeting that ISIS and Mexican drug cartels are collaborating.
There is absolutely no evidence linking ISIS, or any terror group for that matter, to Ebola. In fact, doctors have said that Ebola would not be a very efficient bio-weapon, given that it is not easily transmissible and not very discreet. Asked whether terrorism and Ebola go together on Fox News Sunday, Dr. Anthony Faucci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, “If I were a bio-terrorist, Ebola would not be my first choice.”
4. Immigrants will bring Ebola into the United States through Mexico.
An anti-immigration variant of Scott Brown’s “porous border” argument, some lawmakers have also expressed concern about undocumented immigrants infected with Ebola coming into the United States from Mexico, a country that has seen zero cases of the virus thus far.
In July, Rep. Phil Gringrey (R-GA), also an M.D., sent a letter to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saying, “Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning.” There have been no such reports. Thom Thillis, the Republican Senate candidate in North Carolina, has also said that the Ebola outbreak should compel the government to “seal the border” with Mexico. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-ID) and Sen. Rand Paul have also expressed fears of Ebola carrying immigrants coming in from the south.
None of these men expressed concern about the U.S.’s significantly longer and certainly less policed border with Canada, which has actually had a few Ebola scares.
5. We should close off West Africa.
While this is perhaps the most reasonable sounding of all the statements listed here, it’s also the most dangerous. It’s being pushed by the mainstream, not the fringe, and it has wide support among Americans — despite health experts’ insistence that it’s a bad idea that will ultimately cost more lives.
Politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle are now suggesting that the United States should cancel flights coming out of Ebola stricken countries. “A temporary ban on travel to the United States from countries afflicted with the virus is something that the president should absolutely consider,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said this week, a sentiment that’s been echoed by multiple other politicians ranging from David Scott in Georgia to Marco Rubio in Florida.
Stopping people from Ebola stricken regions from entering the United States seems like a logical precaution, but organizations like the CDC, the World Health Organization, and Doctors Without Borders have said that cancelling flights out of West Africa would only worsen the outbreak. A travel ban would cause even more logistical challenges to the transportation of medical supplies and personnel in and out of West Africa, which are already substantial. It would also destabilize the affected countries and make the virus harder to track, increasing the risk for Americans at home in the long-term.
Joaquim is an intern at ThinkProgress.