Health

How Chris Christie Became A Hero Of The Anti-Vax Movement

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mel Evans

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) made headlines on Monday for saying that parents have the right to make their own choices about whether to vaccinate their kids. Although his office has since sought to clarify those statements, the controversial remark is shedding new light on Christie’s complicated history with vaccine safety.

Christie told reporters that the government needs to “balance” public health concerns with the rights of parents. Considering the fact that the measles is currently spreading rapidly among people who haven’t been vaccinated against the disease, those comments made some waves. But they’re largely consistent with the potential presidential contender’s other public statements on the subject.

Back in 2009, when Christie was running for governor, he appeared to court anti-vaccine groups, who have positioned themselves against New Jersey’s current vaccine requirements. He met with leaders of Life Health Choices, a group that pushes the conspiracy theory that the shot against measles is linked to autism. And as part of his campaign, he wrote a letter about his political positions that implicitly endorsed that position.

“I have met with families affected by autism from across the state and have been struck by their incredible grace and courage. Many of these families have expressed their concern over New Jersey’s highest-in-the nation vaccine mandates,” Christie wrote. “I stand with them now, and will stand with them as their governor in their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children.”

During a radio appearance that year, Christie echoed that position, telling talk show host Don Imus that addressing the high rates of autism in New Jersey involves “not just the environmental concerns but vaccinations.” He added that he had “real concerns” about some of the state’s vaccine mandates, which require school children to receive their recommended immunizations as well as the flu shot.

During the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama and John McCain made similar statements suggesting there might be a link between autism and vaccines. Obama’s campaign spokespeople attempted to clarify that he did not personally believe that theory, but was trying to acknowledge that other people did. This week, the president said that the science regarding vaccines is “pretty indisputable” and urged parents to immunize their children.

After he was elected in 2009, Christie didn’t completely change his position on the subject. In 2011, when he was confronted at a town hall by the leader of New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice, he said that he stood by what he said on Imus’ show, and confirmed his support for parents who question the safety of vaccines.

“On behalf of the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice, I’d like to express my thanks to Governor Christie,” Louise Kuo Habakus, who heads both that group and Life Health Choices, wrote in a blog post after the encounter. “During his campaign and now, he has offered perhaps the strongest public statement of support by the governor of any state for parental vaccination choice.”

In office, Christie has rejected efforts to expand New Jersey’s vaccination requirements. In 2012, the governor vetoed a bill that would have required health care facilities to offer the flu shot to their employees — even though, under the bipartisan measure, workers would have been free to decline the vaccine if they didn’t want it. The New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice celebrated the governor’s veto, incorrectly claiming that the flu vaccine is ineffective and actually spreads the flu.

During this week’s controversy over Christie’s remarks on vaccines, Kuo Habakus has stood by him. “I want to laud NJ Governor Chris Christie for his courageous, constant, and principled position on parental rights,” she posted on Facebook. “With measles hysteria and vaccine panacea guns blazing in the media, Christie come forward again in defense of parents.”

Concerns over the safety of the measles vaccine can be traced back to a thoroughly debunked study that claimed the shots might increase kids’ risk of autism. Even though that paper was declared an “elaborate fraud” and eventually retracted, the damage was done. There has been an uptick in the number of parents forgoing their children’s recommended shots, and a corresponding rise in vaccine preventable diseases, directly linked to those unfounded beliefs about vaccines and autism.

Unscientific myths about vaccines have been given a larger platform in the U.S. thanks to celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, Donald Trump, and Kristin Cavallari. Public health officials, meanwhile, don’t believe there’s any room for gray area here. The government schedule for recommended childhood vaccines has been rigorously tested, and there’s no reason to worry the shots might be harmful. Just last month, a 12-year study confirmed that the measles vaccines is perfectly safe.

While Christie calls for “balance” on issues related to vaccines, he’s previously taken hard line stances in the name of public health over the protestations of people who say their individual rights have been compromised.

Last fall, during public panic over the Ebola outbreak in several Western African countries, he held a nurse in mandatory quarantine after she returned from treating patients in Sierra Leone. Even though Kaci Hickox wasn’t contagious, and despite the fact that top doctors warned that quarantining health workers wasn’t actually a good policy, Christie said he needed to exert his authority to protect the health of the American people. Hickox, meanwhile, said her “basic human rights” were violated when she was kept in a tent and prevented from returning to her home in Maine.

“I’m sorry if in any way she was inconvenienced, but inconvenience that could occur from having folks that are symptomatic and ill out amongst the public is a much, much greater concern of mine,” Christie said at the time.

Although it doesn’t capture the national imagination in the same way, measles is about nine times more contagious than Ebola. Some experts say that, while quarantines for Ebola were inappropriate based on the scientific evidence about how the disease spreads, quarantines for measles would make more sense from a public health perspective.