Politically motivated fearmongering about vaccination is putting children in our community in danger. During the Republican presidential primaries leading up to the 2012 election, former representative Michelle Bachmann criticized Governor Rick Perry’s mandate for the HPV vaccine, which protects against a cancer-causing virus. She claimed at the time that she had met parents who believed that the vaccine gave their daughters “mental retardation.” These statements introduced a new precedent of injecting issues of vaccine safety into presidential politics. The American Academy of Pediatrics made emphatic statements at the time to clarify that the HPV vaccine does not cause mental retardation, but by this point the damage had been done: fear had taken hold in parents’ minds.
In 2015, with the presidential election around the corner and a widespread measles outbreak on our minds, the dangerous mix of immunization paranoia and politics continues. Senator Rand Paul, physician and presidential hopeful, claims to have met “many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines,” a statement that is dubious at best. His words are grounded in a fraudulent study that has long since been retracted and its author now discredited. Governor Chris Christie has also entered into the debate by stating, “parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.” By employing the rhetoric of individual rights and a fear of big government, those in public office often attempt to score cheap political points and win public acceptance. Politicians like Senator Paul and Governor Christie are brandishing discredited ideas as tenable arguments against clear evidence-based recommendations to vaccinate, sowing confusion amongst parents.
According to the World Health Organization, measles is a leading cause of death worldwide, despite the universal availability of a widely researched and safe vaccine against it. The disease killed over 145,000 individuals, most of them children under 5 years of age, in 2013. Immunization against diseases like measles not only protects those that receive the vaccines but also helps to protect those who are not eligible to receive them, such as young infants and children with deficient immune systems. It is these children who are also at the highest risk of grave complications ranging from encephalitis to pneumonia, and depend on the rest of us to protect them.
It is no secret that vaccination rates across the country are falling. Based on CDC data, the nationwide measles, mumps and rubella vaccination rate among 19-35 month-olds is 91.9%, down from a rate of 92.3% in 2006. Rates are falling most in Ohio, Missouri, West Virginia, Connecticut and Virginia. More and more parents will choose to opt out of immunizing their children for fear of side effects, thanks to the dissemination of groundless claims. In response to the current epidemic, the American Academy of Pediatrics has released a recent statement once again exhorting parents to vaccinate their children, reiterating what they have said for decades: the measles vaccine is safe and effective.
We are already burdened with a wide number of celebrities, discredited researchers, and physicians relying on anecdotes and hearsay who are more than willing to use the vaccine controversy to gain quick publicity. Politicians should be clear to the public on the proven science of vaccines and should avoid muddying the waters further. It would be better for the candidates, too: it is widely believed that Michelle Bachmann lost credibility because of her statements on vaccines in 2008. Senator Paul and Governor Christie should learn a lesson from her failure and be willing to communicate a clear message to the public: vaccines are safe and are effective at protecting against dangerous diseases. Unnecessary vaccine exemptions put our greatest asset – our children – at risk.