Politicizing measles vaccine: Why politicians shouldn’t play doctor

In trying to pander to likely libertarian voters, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may wish he had received a shot against foot-in-mouth disease.

The nation is finally beginning to realize the importance of universal vaccination. The ongoing outbreak of measles in states across the country, mostly in California, where a large number of people were believed to have been exposed at Disneyland in mid-December, is causing at least some people to think twice about skipping the regular vaccination schedule for their children.

California has one of the laxest laws in the nation about mandatory childhood vaccination. Although most states allow for some exemptions for religious or health-related reasons — if a child’s immune system has been compromised because of treatment for another disease, for instance — California allows parents to opt out basically for personal reasons. No religious or health-related reason is necessary. Hence the large number of measles cases there — 91 cases in California out of a total of 102 total measles cases in January, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On a London trip, Christie, who just launched a fundraising committee for a 2016 run for the Republican presidential nomination, said there should be a “balance” between what the government is asking for in mandatory vaccination and parent choice.

“It’s more important what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official,” Christie said, as quoted by The New York Times. “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.”

His office tried to do some damage control the next day, releasing more of Christie’s comments. He also added, “Not every vaccine is created equal, and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others.” Just guessing here, but I don’t think that helps his argument. Here’s Christie’s babbling quote in full: “What I said was that there has to be a balance and it depends on what the vaccine is, what the disease type is and all the rest. And so I didn’t say I’m leaving people the option. What I’m saying is that you have to have that balance in considering parental concerns because no parent cares about anything more than they care about protecting their own child’s health and so we have to have that conversation, but that has to move and shift in my view from disease type. Not every vaccine is created equal and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others. So that’s what I mean by that so that I’m not misunderstood.”

Even worse, there is now evidence that the New Jersey governor backed the anti-vaccination movement in 2009 when he first ran for governor. In a 2009 radio interview, Christie said: “We need to look at all the different things affecting autism in New Jersey because we have the highest rate in the country, not just the environmental concerns but vaccinations. Parents of children with autism need to be heard, they need a seat at the table to be talking about these issues.” So he’s been wrong for years.

Of course, his electoral opponent, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, was pushing for mandatory immunization at the time, so Christie felt he could score political points by being contrary. An anti-vaccine group also touted a 2009 letter from Christie, in which he said: “Many of these families have expressed their concern over New Jersey’s highest-in-the nation vaccine mandates. 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.”

The trouble with this argument, of course, is that measles is an extremely communicable disease that can have very serious consequences. It is a great public health threat. Measles was considered eradicated in the U.S. in the year 2000, but thanks to the rise of the anti-vaccine movement, too many parents are choosing not to immunize their children, putting too many others — including their own children — at risk. Infants under one year, who haven’t gotten those shots yet, are susceptible. The “herd immunity” that kept unimmunized individuals safe for so long doesn’t work when there aren’t enough in the herd. The popularity of a now completely debunked study tying the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine to autism started the movement, and now it just won’t go away.

Not to be outdone, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), who has his own presidential ambitions, decided to out-libertarian Christie. He said vaccines should be “voluntary,” and that “I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” He offered no specifics, only repeated the pandering statement that “Well, I guess being for freedom would be really unusual.”

Keep in mind that Rand Paul is a physician, an ophthalmologist. Of course, after initially being board-certified in the usual way, by the American Board of Ophthalmology, he invented his own certifying organization to certify himself. I think it’s safe to say that most people working in Congress would choose to go elsewhere in an emergency rather than turn to Dr. Rand Paul for treatment.

President Obama has urged parents across the country to vaccinate children, so I suppose it’s no surprise that some in the GOP take the opposite approach. But let’s listen to the nation’s top doctor.

On a recent trip to the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, the new U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, a public health physician, stressed the importance of immunization. He said he learned in medical school what happened in America before there were vaccines. “We had many people we would lose to deaths. Many people who, as in the case of polio, were paralyzed.” He added that the success of vaccines has some parents thinking those vaccines aren’t necessary anymore — a factor in current outbreaks of measles, whooping cough, and flu.

Republicans have been trying to use the “I’m not a scientist” line for a few years now in an attempt to avoid having to talk about climate change, or for taking any responsibility for not taking the issue seriously. Maybe it’s time for them to say, “I’m not a doctor,” and then listen to doctors when they tell people to vaccinate their kids.


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