There’s something odd about the anti-vaccine movement.
In this case, I’m not referring to the astonishing belief that essential oils will protect against infectious diseases, or that contracting tetanus simply means one’s immune system was insufficiently robust. Nor do I mean the surprising willingness to go on the public record with an unapologetic sense of entitlement. Those are both hard to understand, to be sure, but they’re not what I’m getting at now.
No, the thing I’m pondering about the anti-vaccine movement is the strange sway it seems to have over politicians. Potential presidential candidates from across the political spectrum seem shockingly ready to beclown themselves in fealty to a small number of irresponsible voters.
It’s one thing when perennial punchline non-candidate Donald Trump takes to social media to blather about vaccines and autism. His asinine pronouncements are merely one part of his ongoing campaign to prove how much bigger his mouth is than his brain, and nobody takes his occasional forays into political flim-flammery at all seriously. The man is a walking conspiracy theory with terrible hair, so what’s one more?
But it’s another thing entirely when serious contenders for their party’s nomination make fools of themselves paying obeisance to vaccine refusers. The most recent examples are New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who earlier this week got into a race to the bottom of the anti-vaxx barrel. While, as a fellow physician, I have special contempt for Sen. Paul’s tissue-thin assertions about children who “wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines,” Gov. Christie’s comments that “It’s more important what you think [about vaccines] as a parent than what you think as a public official” earn a special spot in ignominy as well.
Before we write this off as merely a Republican problem, however, the unfortunate fact remains that in 2008, three candidates from both parties decided to go wading in the stupid pool, including the two who ended up on the ballot.
Barack Obama: "We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.”
John McCain: “It's indisputable that [autism] is on the rise among children, the question is what's causing it. And we go back and forth and there's strong evidence that indicates it's got to do with a preservative in vaccines."
Hillary Clinton: “I am committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines.”
None of them had any excuse for making these irresponsible, baseless comments. There was ample evidence readily at hand years before 2008 that rendered every single one of these statements scientifically void, including a 2004 report from the Institutes of Medicine that found no connection whatsoever between vaccines and autism. Sen. McCain’s reference to a vaccine preservative no doubt meant thimerosal, which has been its own focus of study and had also been found to have no association with autism, including research that came out in 2007. While I appreciate President Obama’s recent, reassuringly sane comments about the importance of vaccinating, it cannot be denied that he and his two opponents engaged in unambiguous pandering to anti-vaccine elements back in the day.
What perplexes me is why they would do so. While there are definitely communities that have an inordinate number of vaccine refusers, often on the affluent side of the socioeconomic coin, they are overwhelmed by the vast majority of responsible adults who immunize their kids on schedule. With vaccination rates nationwide at 90 percent or higher, what on earth motivates politicians to cater to the small, irresponsible minority?
In some cases there’s a kind of cracked rationale that I can comprehend. Former GOP Representative Michele Bachmann’s wild-eyed tirades against the vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV) make a modicum of skewed sense. Since HPV is a sexually-transmitted infection, social conservatives were in a swivet that protecting against it would turn their otherwise pure children into wanton hedonists. Rep. Bachmann, never a serious candidate herself, was simply trying to cozy up to them, though in such a crazy way that even Rush Limbaugh wanted none of it.
Along those lines, one could interpret Sen. Paul’s statements that vaccines should be “voluntary” as of a piece with his cherry-picked quasi-libertarianism. However, that doesn’t explain his appalling comments about vaccine-related neurological damage. Whatever the political calculus that undergirds them, it doesn’t make them either accurate or excusable.
With the measles outbreak at Disneyland casting greater light on those who refuse to vaccinate, it appears that their decision is getting the popular cultural condemnation that it deserves. Hopefully that means, whatever the benighted reasons behind it, politicians will stop making statements meant to appeal to those who want their bad health decisions validated. Comments like Gov. Christie’s and Sen. Paul’s, just like then-Sen. Obama’s before, are incorrect, dangerous and deeply frustrating to the medical community. Let’s hope we’ve heard the last of them.