This week, potential presidential contenders are increasingly weighing in on the issue of vaccine safety — sparking considerable controversy amid a worsening measles outbreak that’s sickened more than 100 people in the past month alone.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) kicked it off on Monday by telling reporters that the government must “balance” public health concerns with parents’ rights to refuse vaccines if they believe the shots may harm their children. The comments put the spotlight on Christie’s long history of pandering to anti-vaccine parents, who have a strong presence in New Jersey, a state with a particularly high rate of autism.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R) further fueled the debate by saying that most vaccines should be voluntary, claiming that some children develop “profound mental disorders” after being immunized even though there’s no evidence to back that up. Paul, who is an eye doctor, attracted particular scrutiny for his comments because of his medical background.
Hillary Clinton waded into the firestorm late on Monday, tweeting that “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids.” Her statement echoes recent comments from President Barack Obama, who said in an interview with NBC News that the science is “indisputable” and “you should get your kids vaccinated.”
And Dr. Ben Carson, a former pediatric neurosurgeon, broke from his fellow GOP candidates on Monday and told Buzzfeed that “certain communicable diseases have been largely eradicated by immunization policies in this country and we should not allow those diseases to return by forgoing safe immunization programs, for philosophical, religious, or other reasons when we have the means to eradicate them.”
The unfolding controversy threatens to turn vaccinations into an election issue. The Huffington Post quickly rounded up the rest of the potential GOP contenders’ positions on vaccines. And the New York Times reported that the debate is posing a challenge for Republican candidates, “who find themselves in the familiar but uncomfortable position of reconciling modern science with the skepticism of their core conservative voters,” similarly to issues related to climate change.
But making measles into election fodder comes with some risks. Medical experts are wary about the recent vaccine controversy stemming from potential presidential contenders. They say that approaching vaccine safety as if there are two equal sides to the debate gives anti-science conspiracies too much credibility.
“When you see educated people or elected officials giving credence to things that have been completely debunked, an idea that’s been shown to be responsible for multiple measles and pertussis outbreaks in recent years, it’s very concerning,” Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh, told the Washington Post.
Seth Mnookin, an MIT professor who has authored a book about the myth that vaccines are linked to autism called The Panic Virus, told the Washington Post that the latest remarks from Christie and Paul “basically fail at the first duty of a politician, which is to calm his constituents in moments of irrational crisis.” He called their statements about vaccines “incredibly, incredibly irresponsible.”
Writing in the Daily Beast on Monday, one pediatrician argued that “clueless politicians” have made his job even harder. “Between them, Sen. Paul and Gov. Christie have left a shameful mark on their party’s prospects in two years. Neither of them have any business being in charge of American public health policy,” the doctor, who writes under a pseudonym, concluded.
Controversy over vaccines has flared up during previous elections, too. During the 2012 presidential race, GOP contender Michele Bachmann attacked one of her opponents, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX), for mandating that girls in his state receive the recommended doses of the HPV vaccine.
The medical community sharply chastised Bachmann for stoking unfounded fears that the HPV vaccine, which helps prevent a range of cancers, could lead to “mental retardation.” But the damage was done — Perry publicly reversed his position on vaccine, and public health experts lamented the potentially negative effects of the bad press. The United States’ HPV vaccination rates are still extremely low, and about a quarter of parents surveyed by the CDC in 2013 said they don’t believe the immunization is necessary for their kids.