Republican leaders scramble to clarify positions on vaccination

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 05 February 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h692
  1. Michael McCarthy
  1. 1Seattle

Republican leaders scrambled this week to clarify their positions on vaccination after two of their party’s potential US presidential contenders made statements that seemed to support the position that vaccination should be voluntary.

First, New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, who was traveling in the United Kingdom on a trade mission, said on Monday 2 February that although he had had his children vaccinated, “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.”

The comment, coming amid a measles outbreak in the US that has grown to more than 100 cases,1 caused a stir. Health officials blame the outbreak on the large number of parents who have not had their children vaccinated. Critics charged that Christie was undermining public health by “pandering” to his party’s right wing, whose members often oppose any measures that they see as government interference in their private lives.

Christie’s office quickly issued a statement clarifying his remarks: “With a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated. At the same time, different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which one’s government should mandate.”

Later that day, however, another Republican presidential prospect, Rand Paul, a senator from Kentucky with libertarian views and an ophthalmologist by training, said in an interview that he thought vaccines should be voluntary. “I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines,” Paul said.

The comments have triggered much criticism, prompting Paul to say that he was not arguing that vaccines were bad but that the decision whether to vaccinate your children was a “question of freedom.” Paul said, “The state doesn’t own our children. Parents own the children.”

Paul also denied he had claimed that vaccines caused mental disorders. “I did not say vaccines caused disorders, just that they were temporally related—I did not allege causation,” he said.

Other Republican presidential prospects were quick to distance themselves from Paul. Louisiana’s governor, Bobby Jindhal, issued a statement in which he denounced “fear mongering” about the issue and urged all parents to get their children vaccinated. “I think it is irresponsible for leaders to undermine the public’s confidence in vaccinations that have been tested and proven to protect public health,” he said.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is also thought to be testing the presidential waters, came out strongly in favor of vaccinations: “Absolutely, all children in America should be vaccinated,” Rubio said.

Ben Carson, a conservative Tea Party favorite and retired pediatric neurosurgeon, took the strongest position in favor of vaccines. In an interview with National Public Radio Carson said, “This is a situation when you are dealing with public health and public safety, and we’re all in the same boat, and that’s a very different situation than one where your personal choice affects only you.”

Republican congressional leaders also joined the fray, with House speaker John A Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, saying, “I don’t know that we need another law, but I do believe that all children ought to be vaccinated,” and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell saying, “As a victim of polio myself I’m a big fan of vaccinations.”

On the Democratic side, the party’s leading presidential prospect, Hillary Clinton, the former US secretary of state, joined the debate on Twitter by tweeting, “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h692


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