Medical experts reacted with alarm on Monday as two top contenders for the Republican presidential nomination appeared to question whether child vaccinations should be mandatory — injecting politics into an emotional issue that has taken on new resonance with a recent outbreak of measles.
First, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, while visiting a vaccine laboratory during an overseas trip to Britain, called for “some measure of choice” on whether shots guarding against measles and other diseases should be required for children.
Then, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, an ophthalmologist who is also readying a 2016 campaign, said in two U.S. television interviews that he believes most vaccines should be voluntary, citing “many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.”
“The state doesn’t own your children,” Paul said on CNBC, praising vaccines for their health benefits but insisting that the government should not mandate their use in most cases. “Parents own the children. And it is an issue of freedom and public health.”
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The politicians’ comments illustrated persistent strains of skepticism within both parties over vaccination requirements, fueled in part by discredited claims of a connection between childhood shots and autism. Scientists have blamed a small but influential anti-vaccine movement for helping spark a new epidemic of measles, which was once virtually eliminated.
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that more than 100 cases of the highly infectious disease were diagnosed in January. Most of the cases appear linked to victims who became ill after visiting Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.
“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,” said Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh. He called the comments from Paul particularly troubling because Paul is a doctor.
Christie’s aides tried to clarify his remarks, insisting that the governor believes vaccines are “an important public health protection.”
After visiting a vaccine laboratory in Cambridge, Christie was asked to weigh in on the debate in the United States over the measles outbreak. President Barack Obama told NBC News anchor Savannah Guthrie on Sunday, “You should get your kids vaccinated.”
“The science is, you know, pretty indisputable,” Obama said. “We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not.”
Christie, however, said on Monday that “there has to be a balance, and it depends on what the vaccine is, what the disease type is, and all the rest.” He added, “Not every vaccine is created equal, and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others.”
As for Paul, he told talk show host Laura Ingraham that he had chosen to hold off on vaccinating his own children for some diseases.
“I didn’t like them getting 10 vaccines at once, so I actually delayed my kids’ vaccines and had them staggered over time,” he said.
Both men’s remarks drew immediate rebuke from public-health experts.
Seth Mnookin, a professor at MIT who has written a book on the vaccination debate called “The Panic Virus,” called the comments from Christie and Paul “incredibly, incredibly irresponsible.”
Such remarks, he said, “basically fail at the first duty of a politician, which is to calm his constituents in moments of irrational crisis.”
In substance, Christie’s overseas comments did not differ dramatically from remarks he has made previously in New Jersey, which faces higher than average childhood autism rates and an active community of parents who have questioned vaccinations.
In the 2008 campaign, both Obama and Sen. John McCain drew fire for seeming to give credence to a link between vaccines and autism. At one campaign appearance, Obama noted that “some people are suspicious” that skyrocketing autism rates might be linked to vaccines.
“The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it,” he said.
McCain said at a town-hall meeting in 2008 that there was “strong evidence that indicates it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”