If there’s a Republican who is likely running for president in 2016, you have probably heard his views on vaccinations this week after a rapidly spreading measles outbreak in California launched the issue into the national spotlight. But while politicians have been eager to claim they support vaccinations and would vaccinate their own children, they have stopped short of the larger issue of whether the government should more strictly enforce a mandate that makes it harder for parents to avoid immunizations.
In the wake of the resurgence of measles, a disease that was eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, Republican contenders have avoided weighing in on any policies which could help prevent outbreaks of vaccination-preventable diseases. Most states allow parents to invoke personal or religious exemptions to vaccine requirements in school. Unless exemptions are tightened, future outbreaks like what started in California will not be prevented because the number of children with non-medical exemptions continues to grow. Instead, the likely candidates continue to discuss whether they personally believe in vaccinations for themselves and their families — an argument that misses the point of the vaccination debate.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the first to set off a firestorm on the issue, said that while he had his children vaccinated because he felt it was important for their wellbeing, he felt there should be “balance” between public health concerns with parents’ rights to make individual choices for their family. “It’s more important what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official,” he told reporters. “I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has also professed his personal support for vaccinations recently, posting a photo on Twitter showing a doctor administering his booster vaccine. But the former ophthalmologist has also said that parents should have a choice in the matter because vaccinations can lead to “mental disorders.”
“While I think it’s a good idea to take the vaccine, I think that’s a personal decision for individuals,” he told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham on Monday. Paul was also quoted in 2009 as saying that mandatory vaccines could lead to “martial law.”
When Ben Carson was asked on CNN Tuesday if he thinks the outbreak in California is a sign that the government needs to do more to mandate vaccines, the pediatric neurosurgeon and likely 2016 candidate refrained from weighing in and instead called for tougher border security.
“We have to account for the fact that we now have people coming into the country, sometimes undocumented people, who perhaps had diseases that we had under control,” Carson said.
But according to the Center for Disease Control, the increase in vaccine-preventable diseases in the U.S. “was not the result of a greater number of imported cases, but was the result of greater viral transmission after importation into the United States” by school-aged children whose parents chose not to have them vaccinated.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) was more firm in his support for vaccines, telling reporters that “all children in America should be vaccinated.” Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal echoed Rubio’s sentiment in a statement, saying, “Personally, I would not send my kids to a school that did not require vaccinations. Vaccinations are important. I urge every parent to get them. Every one.”
Children are typically required to get the recommended immunizations before enrolling in school. Vaccines are currently mandated in all U.S. states, and for good reason — they save an estimated 6 to 9 million lives worldwide and they have decreased most preventable childhood diseases by more than 95 percent, according to a Center for American Progress report. Yet many children remain unvaccinated because of their parents’ decision to take advantage of personal or religious exemptions.
Every state except Mississippi and West Virginia allows some kind of religious exemption and 20 states currently grant personal belief exemptions, so a growing number of children without vaccinations have been allowed in schools where they increase the risk of disease outbreaks.
Even without the support of national lawmakers, a number of states are moving forward with legislation that would limit the number of vaccine exemptions. Lawmakers are introducing measures in California and Arizona to make school immunization records public, and bills have been introduced in Maine and Minnesota to make it more difficult for parents to exempt their children. The new proposals follow legislation in California, Oregon, Washington and Vermont that made exemption policies stricter.
The White House, however, has not strongly advocated a national mandate, which would standardize state exemptions. In a press conference Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said repeatedly that President Obama doesn’t believe a vaccine mandate is necessary because people should exercise common sense.
But doctors and public health officials continue to say that the vaccination issue should not be a debate and states should prioritize strict mandates.
“I think we’re all hoping that this [outbreak] … will encourage people, particularly policymakers, to strengthen their vaccine laws and not weaken them and look very carefully at any exemptions they go to approve,” physician Georges Benjamin, who leads the American Public Health Association, told Politico.