PolitiFact Lie of The Year: Exaggerations about Ebola

Conservatives used Ebola as one means of spreading fear, helping them in the 2014 midterm elections. PoltiFact has now made exaggerations about Ebola their 2014 Lie of the Year. This includes both conservative hysteria which greatly exaggerated the threat faced in a developed nation such as the United States and many of the right wing conspiracy theories. I have already discussed many of these false claims, often in the context of debunking right wing attempts to restrict civil liberties while ignoring the science. From PoltiFact:

Thomas Eric Duncan left Monrovia, Liberia, on Sept. 19, for Dallas. Eleven days later, doctors diagnosed Duncan with Ebola.

Eight days after that, he was dead.

Duncan’s case is just one of two Ebola-related fatalities in the United States, and since Duncan traveled to Dallas, more Americans — at least nine, and likely many more — have died from the flu.

Yet fear of the disease stretched to every corner of America this fall, stoked by exaggerated claims from politicians and pundits. They said Ebola was easy to catch, that illegal immigrants may be carrying the virus across the southern border, that it was all part of a government or corporate conspiracy.

The claims — all wrong — distorted the debate about a serious public health issue. Together, they earn our Lie of the Year for 2014…

Fox News analyst George Will claimed Ebola could be spread into the general population through a sneeze or a cough, saying the conventional wisdom that Ebola spreads only through direct contact with bodily fluids was wrong.

“The problem is the original assumption, said with great certitude if not certainty, was that you need to have direct contact, meaning with bodily fluids from someone, because it’s not airborne,” Will said. “There are doctors who are saying that in a sneeze or some cough, some of the airborne particles can be infectious.” False.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., described Ebola as “incredibly contagious,” “very transmissible” and “easy to catch.” Mostly False.

Internet conspirators claimed President Obama intended to detain people who had signs of illness. Pants on Fire. Bloggers also said the outbreak was started in a bioweapons lab funded by George Soros and Bill Gates. Pants on Fire.

A Georgia congressman claimed there were reports of people carrying diseases including Ebola across the southern border. Pants on Fire. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Americans were told the country would be Ebola-free. False.

When combined, the claims edged the nation toward panic. Governors fought Washington over the federal response. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stumbled to explain details about transmission of the virus and its own prevention measures. American universities turned away people from Africa, whether they were near the outbreak or not.

The post went on to discuss the actual medical facts.

Not surprisingly the misinformation came from many of the usual subjects such as Fox and Republicans such as John McCain and Rand Paul. Their conspiracies theories also involved the usual subjects of right wing attacks like Barack Obama and George Soros.

At least one good thing did come about from the Ebola hysteria. Republicans, with the help of the NRA, had blocked the appointment of Vivek Murthy for Surgeon General for months. The Ebola outbreak placed increased attention on this vacancy and he was finally confirmed by the Senate today.


  1. 1
    Enzo11 says:

    Lie of the year goes to Politifact and this author.

    The CDC itself says that ebola can be spread by the droplets from a sneeze:

    Will did not lie – he was quoting doctors opinions, and stated his quotes as such.

    Just another pathetic partisan hack job, at least as far as the Will attack goes.

    No wonder Gruber thinks you guys are stupid.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Politifact got it right and you got your facts wrong, both about Ebola and about what the CDC has said.

    This is why you need to look at the actual source, not listen to conservative writers who lie about the facts. The articles you linked to are inaccurate and do not reflect reports from the CDC. The controversy is over whether Ebola could be spread casually as conservatives claimed. Ebola is not a respiratory disease and is not spread by casual contact. What confuses the scientifically ignorant conservatives is that early in the disease the viral load is very low and casual spread does not occur. Very late in the disease (when they are typically having projectile vomiting and uncontrolled diarrhea) then the people are essentially a bag of virus and then any fluids could contain the virus.

    The CDC’s literature, as is all the scientific literature on Ebola, is very clear that Ebola is not an airborne disease as anti-science conservatives claim. The CDC also has explained how unlikely it is that Ebola could mutate to become an airborne disease, as conservatives claim could happen. See: http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/pdf/mutations.pdf

    Now who is looking stupid, both in your false claims about Ebola and in misquoting Gruber?

  3. 3
    Enzo11 says:

    Sorry, but having looked at the actual poster that was on the CDC web site ( since been pulled), their info was actually contradictory – in one sentence it said that there was no evidence that it could be spread by sneezing, and then another stating that it could be spread through “droplets”. One of the many sources of bodily fluid “droplets” is through sneezing, hence the claims by many doctors that it can indeed be spread that way when the droplets go into direct contact with another persons, eyes, mouth, nose, or an open cut, or from picking up that droplet ( which can live for a day) off of a surface and transmitted to ones mouth, nose, eyes, or open cut.

    Not being an “airborn” disease is entirely different than being spread through bodily droplets. Try educating yourself a bit before making such stupid statements.

    The issue is not whether or not the CDC was accurate, but whether or not Will was lying when he quoted that many doctors state that it can be spread through sneezing – many doctors have indeed said that it can be, therefore Will was not lying – even though you sick-minded rabid libs would love to make that claim as another means of boosting your weak egos.

    Now who is looking stupid?

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    You continue to look stupid in trying to justify what Will wrote, in your confusion regarding the meaning of droplets in this context, and your incorrect claim that doctors state that Ebola can be spread by sneezing.

    George Will was being called out for contributing to the conservative hysteria that Ebola could be spread by coughing or sneezing, and claims that it could become airborne. Information from the CDC indicates this conservative claim is incorrect:

    Can Ebola be spread by coughing or sneezing?

    There is no evidence indicating that Ebola virus is spread by coughing or sneezing. Ebola virus is transmitted through direct contact with the blood or body fluids of a person who is sick with Ebola; the virus is not transmitted through the air (like measles virus). However, droplets (e.g., splashes or sprays) of respiratory or other secretions from a person who is sick with Ebola could be infectious, and therefore certain precautions (called standard, contact, and droplet precautions) are recommended for use in healthcare settings to prevent the transmission of Ebola virus from patients sick with Ebola to healthcare personnel and other patients or family members.

    Will was claiming that Ebola is airborne, and was misinterpreting the CDC’s literature regarding droplets (as you also are).

    Politifact explained:

    Conservative pundit George Will attacked what to him was the hubris in those early statements.

    “The problem is the original assumption, said with great certitude if not certainty, was that you need to have direct contact, meaning with bodily fluids from someone because it’s (Ebola) not airborne,” Will said Oct. 19 on Fox News Sunday.

    “There are doctors who are saying that in a sneeze or some cough, some of the airborne particles can be infectious.” Will also said Ebola could survive on a dry surface “for a number of days.”

    Show host Chris Wallace cut Will off, asserting that Ebola does not spread like the flu, which does move from person to person when someone with the illness is out in public.

    When another guest challenged Will to cite his source, he ultimately referred to scientists at the University of Minnesota.

    Here, we’re fact-checking Will’s claim that scientists say a cough or sneeze can spread Ebola. From the context of the discussion, we understand that Will was talking about the risk to the general public.

    We reached out to Will and did not hear back but thanks to the rumor website Snopes, we have a pretty good idea where he got his information. In mid September, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy posted a commentary from two University of Illinois professors.

    The commentary, co-written by Lisa Brosseau and Rachel Jones, argued that health care workers treating patients with Ebola should wear respirators. Face masks, they said, are not enough.

    We asked Brosseau if Will had correctly relayed her work. Brosseau said her views had nothing to do with Ebola spreading among the public at large. The focus was on health care workers treating people in the isolation wards.

    “We were concerned about aerosols generated by infected patients in the most severe stage of the disease,” Brosseau said.

    Will had mistakenly connected the pathway of infection in a hospital room with someone coughing or sneezing in public.

    As has been well documented, the first symptom of infection is a fever. As the virus multiplies in the body, vomiting and diarrhea set in. Brosseau had written that it is possible that for patients in that condition, tiny water particles from violent vomiting and diarrhea could get into the air and be inhaled. In a laboratory experiment, monkeys with hoods over their heads could acquire the Ebola virus, but Brosseau said that lab experiments should be put in context.

    “We are not aware of any published data about the viability or infectiousness of the Ebola organism in aerosols in the real world,” Brosseau told PunditFact. “It appears unlikely that the public will be exposed to infectious aerosols because they are not likely to encounter infected people experiencing the severe symptoms.”

    We found similar views in the Oxford Journal of Infectious Diseases, and summaries issued by the Centers for Disease Control , the World Health Organization and the New England Journal of Medicine.

    Adam Lauring, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Michigan, emphasized that Ebola is not a respiratory disease. Coughing and sneezing are not symptoms in the way that they are with the flu.

    Stephen Gire, a research scientist in the Sabeti Lab at Harvard University, said if someone with Ebola sneezed or coughed into your face when you were close to them, that could transmit the virus through droplets.

    But, “It’s important to note that this form of transmission does not constitute ‘airborne,’ ” Gire said. “This is still a form of direct contact.”

    “If you were on a plane, and someone sneezed, you wouldn’t be at risk of getting infected unless you were sneezed on directly within close quarters, and that cough or sneeze transferred droplets into mucosal membranes. This is very unlikely scenario, but not out of the realm of possibility. I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been sneezed on directly, and only one of those times was by someone I didn’t know.”

    Once again, Politifact got it right. You and George Will have it wrong.

  5. 5
    Enzo11 says:

    Good lord.

    Direct from the CDC site you gave the link to:

    “However, droplets (e.g., splashes or sprays) of respiratory or other secretions from a person who is sick with Ebola could be infectious, and therefore certain precautions (called standard, contact, and droplet precautions) are recommended for use in healthcare settings to prevent the transmission of Ebola virus from patients sick with Ebola to healthcare personnel and other patients or family members.”

    In other words, droplets from a sneeze can indeed be contagious if they come in direct contact with the recipient.

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    You are taking this out of context and ignoring what is really being said. They are writing about dealing with sicker patients, when the viral load is much higher. They are not talking about the types of situations which George Will was talking about. Standard precautions are recommended in dealing with clinically sick patients. This does not mean that an infected person in the general population with an early infection can spread Ebola by coughing or sneezing in public as conservatives have been claiming.

  7. 7
    Eric says:

    There is stupid and there is stupid, Enzo. The way in which the CDC is talking about droplets could be confusing the first time it is read, especially by lay people. I wouldn’t necessarily call you stupid for misunderstanding it initially. Now that both PolitiFact and Doc Ron have explained this to you in very simple and straight forward terms, there is no longer any excuse for you not to understand. Continuing to make the same claims after it has repeatedly been explained to you is really stupid on your part.

  8. 8
    Ron Chusid says:


    Agree it could have been confusing to people who were honestly trying to understand the issue. It does require a certain amount of background knowledge in medicine to correctly understand some of the CDC articles. However that does not excuse the conservatives who were spreading the hysteria about Ebola. They were just looking for anything they could twist to make their arguments, as the anti-science right so often does.

    They fail to understand that science describes reality, and doesn’t care how they twist things. The right wing distortions do not change the facts.

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