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Political talk adds to Ebola apprehension

WASHINGTON — Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, says US troops returning from service in West Africa could help bring Ebola to American shores.

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas Republican governor, warns that the American government cannot be trusted to combat the threat. Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, charges that his Republican opponent favors billionaires instead of supporting preparation for an outbreak.

The Ebola crisis in West Africa has entered a new sphere: political season in America.

The rhetoric spreading fears about an outbreak comes at a time when President Obama has low approval ratings, weeks before the midterm elections, and just as potential 2016 presidential candidates start to carve niches within their parties.

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Public health specialists worry the ramped-up rhetoric, amplified on partisan shows on cable television and radio talk programs, will spark an increase in panic over exaggerated Ebola fears, and undermine work by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“They’re frightening people,” said Barry R. Bloom, a former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health. “How do you convince people [to appreciate the true level of risk] that believe that our government is lying and that the CDC and its guidelines are not to be trusted?”

“How do you convey to them what the real risk is likely to be?” Bloom said.

Paul is an ophthalmologist, and, like Huckabee, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate. He warned last week that “political correctness” is causing public health officials to play down the potential threat. Then he added another dose of fear.

“There are people getting it who simply helped people get in or out of a taxicab,” he said on Laura Ingraham’s conservative radio show.

The CDC says on its website that Ebola can spread by transmission of bodily fluids, including sweat, but not by air or water.

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The Obama administration this week said it would increase airport screening, but it resisted broader calls from some politicians in both parties to stop air travel from West Africa. Several public health specialists said they understand why there would be calls to close the borders — given that isolation is a key tool in controlling the outbreak. They argued, however, that it would be counterproductive and ineffective, saying that efforts should be focused on controlling the virus in West Africa to protect people there and in the United States.

Obama, in trying to reassure the public, left himself open to second-guessing by his critics when he said last month that it was “unlikely” that someone with the disease would be able to enter the United States. Nine days later, a man from Liberia who reportedly indicated on his travel form that he had not been exposed to the virus landed in Texas, went to the emergency room, and was released — only to return to the hospital and get diagnosed with Ebola and admitted. That led to questions about whether hospitals in Texas and airport officials nationwide have followed appropriate procedures.

Still, public health specialists say they have been taken aback by some of the sharper rhetoric that has ensued. Some members of Congress who have urged tougher immigration enforcement — including Representatives Phil Gingrey, a Georgia Republican and physician, and Todd Rokita, an Indiana Republican — have asserted that unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border with Mexico could pose a risk of transmitting Ebola, which public health specialists say is a far-fetched concern at best.

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“It strikes me that there has been an increase on political stances taken on things that might have in the past been seen as apolitical problems,” said Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan, a former CDC director who is vice president for global health at Emory University. “There’s the opportunity for people to try to use a crisis like this to try to further some existing political agenda.”

The rhetoric could prove more dangerous as flu season begins, because the symptoms closely mirror the early symptoms of Ebola, specialists say.

“If there’s a hysteria about Ebola and the risks are overblown, you’re going to have emergency rooms clogged with people who really have the flu,” Bloom said.

Bloom and others concede that at least a few more infected people could enter the country, but stress that the American public health system is well prepared for it.

Huckabee, a former presidential candidate, sowed seeds of suspicion during his Fox News show over the weekend.

“The Ebola scare goes to the heart of a simple question: Do you trust the government?” he said.

Then he turned to his live audience and asked pointedly: “Do you trust the government?”

“No,” they responded.

“And why would you?” Huckabee said as he played clips touching on a series of hot-button political issues including Obama’s health care law and the response to the deadly attack on a US facility in Benghazi, Libya.

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Republicans have not been the only ones to use Ebola as a political issue. Pryor, the Arkansas Democrat, aired an advertisement in August showing images of medical workers in hazardous materials suits amid scary news reports about the outbreak. Then he accused his Republican opponent, Representative Tom Cotton, of voting “against preparing America for pandemics like Ebola” while instead voting “for tax cuts for billionaires funding his campaign, rather than protecting our families.”

Pryor was criticized for the ad. Then on Tuesday, MSNBC aired a video that showed how treacherous the politics of Ebola can be. Asked by a reporter whether Obama, who has been unpopular in Arkansas, has responded appropriately to the crisis, Pryor paused, stammered, and rambled.

“Um, I would say that — it’s hard to know because, um, I haven’t heard the latest briefing on that,” he said.

Some Republicans have tried to push the GOP away from Paul’s isolationist tendencies. Al Cardenas, the immediate past chairman of the American Conservative Union and a close ally of former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio, called Paul’s views on Ebola “short-sighted.”

“Something like Ebola inspires fear and fear appeals to our lower instincts at times,” Cardenas said. “Politicians are not exempt from these feelings.”


Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.