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Politics of Ebola: Nunn, Perdue make virus part of campaign rhetoric
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The few diagnosed cases of Ebola in the United States are no longer simply a public health issue.

The hysteria and sometimes outright scaremongering of recent weeks, particularly in the media, have taken the issue into the realm of politics.

And candidates vying for the Peach State’s U.S. Senate seat are making sure voters know they’re ready to do battle with the communicable disease that has killed more than 4,500 people in West African nations.

But just one person in the United States, Thomas Eric Duncan, has died from Ebola, and he contracted the virus in Liberia.

Though fewer than 10 cases of Ebola have been treated in the United States, in a country home to more than 300 million people, politicians on the right and left have called for travel bans from the hardest-hit African countries — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

“Georgia is now at the forefront of our national response to Ebola,” Republican Senate candidate David Perdue said in a recent statement. “President (Barack) Obama once again failed to lead and took a serious threat far too lightly. The Obama administration must protect Americans with an aggressive comprehensive plan to stop the spread of this deadly disease, including immediate flight and travel restrictions to prevent additional individuals from entering the United States from Ebola-stricken countries.”

Perdue’s opponent, Democrat Michelle Nunn, also recently called for a travel ban, though more limited in scope than what Perdue is arguing for.

“I support a travel ban for impacted countries in West Africa with an exception for military and health workers,” Nunn said in a recent statement. “Scientists and public health experts at the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) are in the best position to guide our response to this crisis, but our leaders in Washington must provide clear, bipartisan and strong leadership as well as the resources we need to stop the spread of Ebola.”

While Perdue, like many in the GOP, appears to support a full ban that would suspend visas to non-U.S. nationals coming from afflicted African countries, and while Nunn calls for a ban that would allow only aid workers in, neither is likely satisfied by Obama’s announcement on Tuesday.

The White House is now requiring passengers on flights originating from the three hardest-hit African countries to land at one of five airports — Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.

Passengers will be screened and interviewed to determine their likelihood of carrying the Ebola virus.

Though lawmakers are calling for more restrictions, health experts across the country roundly agree a travel ban will likely be counterproductive.

CDC Director Thomas Frieden has said a travel ban will make it more difficult to track infected individuals, and that borders are porous anyway, meaning a ban is unlikely to stop symptomatic individuals from traveling outside of West African nations.

Those sentiments were echoed by Jessi Barker Shrout, an assistant professor of biology at Brenau University in Gainesville.

“I think it would be counterproductive because if you’re not screening individuals, then they’re potentially going to get in the country other ways,” she said.

Shrout also said a ban would inhibit the CDC’s ability to keep track of Ebola cases, “which is really the main goal of the CDC right now.”

Health officials in the United States also said they believe a travel ban would limit the government’s ability to aid and support efforts to halt the spread of the disease in Africa, potentially making it more likely to metastasize.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic presents a case study in the ineffectiveness of travel bans to fight contagious diseases.

During the 1980s, nations across the globe instituted entry, stay and residence restrictions on individuals diagnosed with AIDS.

The United States barred those with the disease from entering the country beginning in 1987, and that ban was only lifted in 2009. 

But HIV/AIDS spread wildly across the world despite these bans, indiscriminately infecting people of all races and ethnicities.

Multiple studies, including one from the United Nations, report these bans were ineffective, costly and discriminatory.

In addition, a Harvard study found airport closures in 2001 were not effective in combating the spread of flu that year.

Instead, it simply delayed its spread by a few weeks.

But in the rush to score political points, these facts can easily be forgotten.

The truth remains, however, that Americans are more likely to die driving to work than they are of contracting Ebola.

In 2012, 92 people were killed on the roadways of the U.S. each day, according to national statistics.

Americans are also more likely to drown at this point than contract Ebola.

Every day in this country, 10 people die from accidental drownings.

And Ebola is not necessarily a death sentence.

Of the eight patients who have been treated for the virus in the United States, four have completely recovered.

Duncan remains the only death.

Meanwhile, there were 536 deaths from tuberculosis, a communicable disease, in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the CDC.

“It becomes sort of hysterical,” Shrout said. “Ebola is less infectious than the common cold, less infectious than the flu.”

Nevertheless, Ebola has become a major talking point on the campaign trail.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said while he’s not sure the issue will have much impact on voters when they head to the polls to choose Georgia’s next U.S. senator, he does believe the issue will be played up in the coming weeks.

Perdue is clearly using the issue to attack Nunn on a front he has been pounding the Democrat on for months.

President Obama has appointed Ron Klain, a Democratic strategist and onetime adviser to the Nunn campaign, as the “Ebola czar,” coordinating the nation’s emergency agencies in their response to the virus.

“The American people are concerned about Ebola, but President Obama is more concerned about doling out favors to his political allies,” Perdue said in a recent statement.

Bullock said this continues a string of attacks from the Perdue campaign trying to link Nunn to the president.

Bullock said Nunn might have to hedge her bets on the issue, staking out a position on a travel ban that differs from Obama, who has been reluctant to institute such a ban, while also not completely aligning with Republicans.

“She doesn’t want to give any fuel to that fire,” Bullock added.

While there appears to be a political advantage to calling for a travel ban of some kind, Bullock said it isn’t that unremarkable to see lawmakers discount the advice of medical and health experts.

“Because the science community comes to one conclusion does not ... mean that most politicians are going to fall in line with that,” he said, citing climate change as one example.