Conservative media outlets, including Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham, are fanning the flames of Ebola panic and anti-immigrant sentiment by highlighting the unfounded opinions of fringe medical expert Dr. Elizabeth Vliet, the former director of an organization that claimed that undocumented immigrants caused a leprosy epidemic.
After news outlets reported the discovery of an Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States, radio host and Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham hosted Dr. Elizabeth Vliet to inform listeners about the disease. Vliet used the platform to accuse President Obama of “underplaying the risk” of Ebola and suggested the disease could be transmitted through the air, an opinion that runs contrary to widespread medical opinion.
Vliet's facts are completely wrong about Ebola's transmission. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that Ebola “is not spread through the air.” A Vox report points out that “basically every health agency in the world agrees” that Ebola cannot be transmitted through the air.
Medical experts also agree that it's highly unlikely Ebola could mutate into a form that changes its mode of transmission. In fact, such a thing has never been observed in medical history, according to Vincent Racaniello, a virologist at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. He writes, “We have been studying viruses for over 100 years, and we've never seen a human virus change the way it is transmitted”:
When it comes to viruses, it is always difficult to predict what they can or cannot do. It is instructive, however, to see what viruses have done in the past, and use that information to guide our thinking. Therefore we can ask: has any human virus ever changed its mode of transmission?
The answer is no. We have been studying viruses for over 100 years, and we've never seen a human virus change the way it is transmitted.
HIV-1 has infected millions of humans since the early 1900s. It is still transmitted among humans by introduction of the virus into the body by sex, contaminated needles, or during childbirth.
Hepatitis C virus has infected millions of humans since its discovery in the 1980s. It is still transmitted among humans by introduction of the virus into the body by contaminated needles, blood, and during birth.
There is no reason to believe that Ebola virus is any different from any of the viruses that infect humans and have not changed the way that they are spread.
Vliet's medical degree and penchant for hyping anti-immigrant myths has helped develop her reputation as the far right's go-to expert for medical conspiracy theories. In August, Vliet wrote an exclusive column for WND.com titled, “Illegals Bring Risk Of Ebola.” In her article, the Vliet parroted other anti-immigrant voices by suggesting undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border were spreading Ebola and that the government was concealing their diagnoses.
Despite “zero evidence” that migrants have carried Ebola through the U.S.-Mexico border, Vliet's opinion was cited by Breitbart, Infowars, and Newsmax, a continuation of a long conservative tradition of smearing immigrants as dirty or diseased.
Vliet is also the former director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), a group of far-right conspiracy theorists with a history of making false claims about undocumented immigrants carrying disease. Mother Jones reported on the organization's connections to the Tea Party and examined the contents of the AAPS' publication Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, noting “the journal erroneously claimed that illegal immigration had caused a leprosy epidemic in the US”:
The publication's archives present a kind of alternate-universe scientific world, in which abortion causes breast cancer and vaccines cause autism, but HIV does not cause AIDS. Cutting carbon emissions represents a grave threat to global health (because environmental regulation would make people poorer and, consequently, sicker). In 2005, the journal erroneously claimed that illegal immigration had caused a leprosy epidemic in the US, a claim that was reported as fact in more mainstream outlets such as Lou Dobbs' show.