The unhealthy politics of Ebola

That hasn’t stopped politicians from exploiting those fears. As Jeremy Peters of The New York Times reported Thursday, elected officials like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and candidates such as Scott Brown, who is running for Senate in New Hampshire, are hyping the threat from the disease and using it to attack President Obama and Democratic candidates. The news media raised similar issues this week in questioning Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat who used Ebola to attack his opponent in a misleading ad released in late August.

This political attention may be contributing to the shift in public focus toward Ebola and away from more significant health threats like the flu. Where Google Trends information is available on both diseases, the data indicate that the relative frequency of searches for Ebola has increased more during the last two weeks in states where the issue has been politicized. It’s possible that politicians in those states are reflecting public opinion rather than causing the shift, but either way the trend is troubling. (Besides the Pryor ad, the Times article mentions candidates and officials in Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina. I exclude Texas and Oklahoma from the data because of the Ebola case in Dallas, which caused a surge in searches in those states. See here for more on how Google Trends works.)

A similar approach finds no equivalent increase in flu searches, which are slowly rising but, not surprisingly, are dwarfed in frequency by Ebola.