In an interview with NBC News that’s set to air on Monday, President Obama encouraged parents to vaccinate their children against potentially dangerous diseases, emphasizing that it’s important for Americans to “know the facts and the science and the information.” In response, at least one Republican lawmaker is calling for “balance” between parents and doctors.
The president’s comments come amidst an increasing number of measles cases that have been traced back to sick people who visited Disneyland theme parks last month. Health officials are monitoring more than a thousand people who have potentially been exposed to the disease, and the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently warned that the country could be facing a “large outbreak.”
Although measles was virtually eliminated in the United States back in 2000, there’s been a recent resurgence of the disease that’s linked to a growing number of parents choosing to skip out on their kids’ recommended vaccines. Despite all scientific evidence to the contrary, some parents believe that the government’s childhood vaccination schedule is either unsafe or unnecessary. An estimated 40 percent of U.S. parents have delayed or skipped some of their children’s shots.
The president specifically addressed those skeptics, telling them that “measles is preventable” and “you should get your kids vaccinated.”
“I understand that there are families that, in some cases, are concerned about the effect of vaccinations,” Obama said, according to the transcript of the interview. “The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not.”
Even though the United States has a measles vaccination rate of about 92 percent, scientists want to get that rate much closer to 100, because pockets of unvaccinated individuals can still allow contagious diseases to spread. Obama pointed out that the groups of kids who don’t get vaccinated can end up making other populations — like people with compromised immune systems, or babies who are too young for shots — more vulnerable to diseases.
Other elected officials are taking a slightly different tack. Immediately after Obama’s comments were published, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) — a potential 2016 presidential contender — told reporters that the government must “balance” public health concerns with parents’ rights to make individual choices for their family.
Christie said that his children are vaccinated and he believes it’s an important part of keeping them healthy. But he added, “I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.”
There is some legal precedent for public health concerns trumping individual choices. A 1905 Supreme Court ruling, for instance, upheld a fine for a Massachusetts man who refused to get vaccinated during a smallpox outbreak — one of the first cases to help frame vaccine requirements in the context of the government’s right to safeguard public health. Since then, courts have also upheld policies that require unvaccinated kids to stay home from school during disease outbreaks.
States also currently have the legal authority to enforce quarantine for infectious diseases. Some experts argue that, considering the fact that measles is so contagious, mandatory quarantines would be a good policy during this outbreak. Right now, parents in California and Arizona are voluntarily keeping their young children in isolation over fears that they may have been exposed to measles.
Christie’s office quickly moved to clarify the governor’s stance on vaccinations on Monday, releasing his full statement on the subject and reiterating that “with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated.”