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A brief history of politicized health scares, starting with Ebola

Politicians know how scary this looks. (AFP photo/Pascal Guyot)s

It's just weeks before the midterm elections, and the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history has become the latest political football. Americans' risk of infection is still very, very low, but fears of the disease are increasing amid some apparent missteps by the federal government and the Texas hospital where the three U.S. Ebola cases emerged.

Republicans are criticizing the Obama administration for not doing more to keep Ebola from this country. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was among the first in his party to call for a travel ban. Meanwhile, some on the left have blamed Republican-backed funding cuts for the lack of an Ebola vaccine.

How people view the federal government's handling of a public health crisis often depends on which party controls the White House, as The Upshot points out this morning.

As a Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier in the week found, Republicans are significantly less confident than Democrats in the federal government's ability to prevent an Ebola epidemic in the United States. And revelations last night that the second Dallas nurse infected with Ebola wasn't stopped from flying after reporting her low-grade fever to the CDC plays into critics' questions about the Obama administration's competency.

We've seen this pattern before with past health scares.

In 2009, the Obama administration was criticized by Democrats and Republicans for its handling of the swine flu outbreak after reports emerged that Wall Street firms were improperly getting first dibs on vaccines. Opponents of Obama's proposed health reform bill brought this up during the debate in Congress, arguing that the apparent mismanagement of the vaccine program raised doubts about the government's ability to take a greater role in the health-care system.

Ahead of the 2002 mid-term elections, Democrats attacked the Bush administration's response to the 2001 anthrax attacks. And some Democrats accused the administration of using the anthrax scare to build its case for the Iraq war.

So, when fears of a public health outbreak emerge, who should we turn to for reason and calm? For starters, we could all listen to Fox News' Shepard Smith, who put the Ebola risk into proper context Wednesday night.

"Do not listen to the hysterical voices on the radio and the television or read the fear-provoking words online," Smith said in his broadcast.

He added this observation: "In the middle of all this, you have to remember that there is politics in the mix," he said. "With the midterm elections coming, the party in charge needs to appear to be effectively leading. The party out of power needs to show there is a lack of leadership."

And those are your Ebola politics in a nutshell.