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Sen. Rand Paul says dangers of Ebola are downplayed

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, seen here at a speech in Dallas, Texas on August 29, 2014.

Mike Stone, Getty Images

With millions of Americans already worried about the Ebola virus, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, fanned the flames by suggesting that the risk of infection is greater than global medical authorities say -- and that the Obama administration is misleading the public about it.

In footage from CNN of his speech at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, the prospective GOP presidential candidate called Ebola "incredibly contagious," and told the crowd that the virus can be spread to another person standing three feet away. He also said he believes the White House is withholding this information.

"If someone has Ebola at a cocktail party they're contagious and you can catch it from them," said Paul. "[The administration] should be honest about that."

Public health officials say four decades of experience dealing with Ebola outbreaks in Africa has proven that's not the case.

"Should you be worried you might have gotten it by sitting next to someone?" Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said Wednesday. "The answer to that is no."

Sen. Paul's reference to being three feet away appears to refer to CDC guidelines for health care workers. The guidelines state that coming within approximately three feet of a symptomatic Ebola patient without wearing protective gear for an extended period of time is considered "low-risk" close contact exposure. However, low-risk doesn't necessarily mean "no risk."

Sen. Paul, who is an ophthalmologist, also claimed that Ebola is easier to contract than AIDS. "You're not going to get AIDS at a cocktail party. No one's going to cough on you and you're going to get AIDS," he said.

In order for the Ebola virus to be transmitted, the CDC as well as the World Health Organization say that a patient's bodily fluids, such as blood, saliva, urine or vomit, must come into direct contact with the mucous membranes or broken skin of a healthy individual. They say that Ebola is not airborne and cannot be picked up like a cold or the flu.

"The CDC says Ebola is not transmitted through the air, so someone would have to cough or sneeze directly onto the person. The CDC says it is transmitted through body fluids such as blood, vomit, stool, urine, and even semen. And someone who shakes hands is considered at low risk for exposure," explained CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook. "The virus has not become an airborne transmitted disease since it was first identified in the 1970's."