Most people seem pretty clear about what Ebola is, except for one Republican senator. According to comments he has made recently, Rand Paul has discovered that Ebola is not AIDS. The possible 206 contender told a group of university students that Ebola can travel up to three feet to infect someone and that the government’s information on the disease was incorrect. In fact, Paul has been talking to many people about how the Obama administration is lying about Ebola in order to score political points ahead of whatever election he decides to run in. By spreading misinformation, Paul runs the risk of creating panic and a potentially dangerous situation for anyone who believes he is correct.
Paul’s favorite bit of rhetoric on the subject seems to be that Ebola is more contagious than AIDS. This hearkens back to the height of the AIDS epidemic when many people believed they could contract the disease by merely being close to a person who had it. Enough facts have been made readily available to counteract that panic and it is understood that only contact with bodily fluids can transmit the disease. In much the same vein, Senator Paul is trying to inform people about the real risks of Ebola and how someone can contract it, but he is completely wrong in everything he is saying.
The Republican has explained his viewpoint by using the analogy of a cocktail party. If a person with AIDS coughs on another person, there is no transmission of the AIDS virus. That is common knowledge and it is also the jumping off point for Paul’s theory. According to him, the Obama administration is making Ebola sound like AIDS in order to hide the truth about how contagious it is and keep people calm. In fact, the direct contact that the experts say is necessary to contract Ebola is a mere three-feet proximity. Thus, if someone at a cocktail party has Ebola and coughs, then someone within three feet of the infected person can be infected.
The information about the three-foot proximity apparently came from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website, which is the best source of information about the disease. That would seem to lend weight to the Senator’s claims, but the website he cites actually contradicts him in the very same section he appeals to. The definition Paul is referring to is not for direct contact but for “close contact” which includes the provision of “for a prolonged period of time.” Correctly read, the definition means that being within three feet of someone for a long time is a risk. That risk, however, is found under the heading of “Low risk exposures” according to the CDC website. Furthermore, Paul’s analogy to a cocktail party directly contradicts the rest of the article in question. According to the CDC, “Brief interactions, such as walking by a person… do not constitute close contact.” Overall, a cocktail party with an Ebola patient (which would be unusual anyway) is a low risk environment for infection.
Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the CDC, has a much better handle on the facts than the senator does. “Should you be worried you might have gotten it by sitting next to someone?” he asked rhetorically. The answer was no. At one point, even Rand Paul might have had some good information when he told the New York Times that Ebola is not spread by “droplet transmission,” which would include sneezing. He and Dr. Frieden agreed at that point that kissing someone with Ebola was a bad idea, but all that seems to have changed.
Now Rand Paul has discovered that Ebola is not AIDS and he is seeing infectious germs in even a simple sneeze. That kind of error is easily corrected by the truth, but what is behind his sudden fear mongering? Talking Points Memo looked in to the question and found that conspiracy theorists might actually be behind it. Rand Paul is a member of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). Paul has said that he uses AAPS materials quite often in his speeches. One of those materials claims that Ebola actually is an airborne disease, which credible science has shown is not. In fact, AAPS has a lot of information that directly contradicts scientific knowledge, including that HIV does not cause AIDS. That may have been where Rand Paul got his “Ebola is not AIDS” idea from in the first place.
Paul is just the latest in a line of politicians who are using Ebola to score points against Democrats. The disease has become an important talking point in a variety of midterm campaigns and criticising the government’s response has been standard for Republicans. Some Republicans are calling for a travel ban, including ranking Republican John Boehner. Ebola has even been part of calls to seal the border as fears about infected undocumented immigrants coming in to the country have been fanned by many conservative pundits and politicians. It should come as no surprise that Rand Paul has picked up that thread of argument.
But he is not completely without culpability in the matter of government response. The United States does not currently have a surgeon general, which would seem like a good position to have filled during a disease crisis. Unfortunately, the man President Obama has nominated for the position has been blocked by none other than Senator Rand Paul. Thus, he is in part responsibility for any difficulties in responding to the problem because of a stall and delay tactic towards working with a president he dislikes.
In essence, Rand Paul’s Ebola warnings are nothing more than partisanship at its finest. Not only is his information derived from a faulty source, but it has led him to criticise the Obama administration for its lack of efficacy. The reality is, however, that Paul himself bears blames for certain problems, notably the lack of a surgeon general. No, Ebola is not AIDS, but it is also not as contagious and panic-worthy as Rand Paul would have people believe and his scare tactics are not helpful to the situation in any respect.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury