With rare exceptions (I’m looking straight at you, Robert Kennedy, Jr.), anti-vaccine denialism has thankfully never penetrated very far into the liberal punditry, much less the Democratic Party. President Obama’s call yesterday for parents to get their children vaccinated against measles has so far been, and will in all likelihood continue to be, completely uncontroversial on the left side of the aisle in Congress. But Chris Christie’s response today calling for a “balance” with parental “choice” shows that anti-vaccine denialism has become embedded in right wing culture wars, with consequences for everyone’s children, and I predict you’ll be seeing more of it from Republican presidential aspirants.
Obama and Christie were both responding to the measles epidemic emerging in California, where vaccine denialism has become so rampant in conservative communities that a single sick child has now infected dozens of people at Disneyland, and public schools are finally sending unvaccinated children home as they should have done years ago. The outbreak is a direct result of reduced vaccination rates thanks to discredited, yet still somehow popular, crank pseudoscience. With a helpful boost from Republican Darrell Issa’s committee hearings from 2001, when measles was declared eradicated in the United States, until 2012 when infection rates were creeping back upwards, anti-vax stupidity has enjoyed a golden age of respectability.
Perhaps the medical profession and public health officials were too timid in the face of political interests and angry celebrity parents. Indeed, health officials have been far too forbearing, for far too long, with the unscientific gobbledygook which animates the anti-vax ‘movement.’ As with climate change denial, all that the quacks have to do in order to elevate their lies and distortions to equal status with empirical scientists is to frame their baseless arguments as being locked in a ‘debate’ with reality, which they then dismiss as a data-set in its entirety.
Measles killed 145,000 people around the world last year, eclipsing the death toll from Ebola. Due to the realities of the human immune system, one parent’s ‘choice’ not to vaccinate absolutely impacts the health of children with sane, responsible parents. It also renders public health policy moot. As pediatrician Russel Saunders complains at The Daily Beast, if Christie’s notions of parental “balance” were actually applied to this crystal-clear public health issue, it would make his job impossible:
(N)ot content to merely undermine the legitimacy of strict vaccine requirements, Gov. Christie went on with this head-scratcher: “Not every vaccine is created equal, and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others.”
[…] (U)nless there’s some pro-diphtheria advocacy group out there I haven’t heard about, I’m guessing Gov. Christie is pulling a sub-rosa Michele Bachmann move, playing to the hearts of social conservatives who don’t want to vaccinate their children against human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted infection that can lead to cervical cancer, fearing that protecting their kids will undermine the perfect chastity they would no doubt otherwise adhere to.
Saunders is correct. Christie’s comments are another sign of how powerful the anti-science wing has become in today’s Republican Party overall, but especially on this topic. Just consider the experience of Christie’s potential 2016 rival, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who endorsed a mandate for Gardasil in state public schools until he started running for president in 2011.
Perry’s move actually went beyond the recommendations of the medical profession and was more inspired by Merck’s lobbyist than anything scientists may have said to him. But it outraged both the religious right as well as the libertarian side of the GOP. The human papillomavirus is mainly transmitted through sexual contact, so Republican ‘promise ring’ parents worried that the shots would encourage promiscuity like a magic sex potion; libertarians disliked Perry’s use of executive authority and tend to revolt against perceived cultural Marxism when they hear scientific terms like ‘herd immunity.’
President Obama’s call for a return to high measles vaccination rates — which had eliminated the disease in America before conservative politicians helped it make a comeback — is a perfect opportunity for this debate to crystallize along clear political lines. On the other hand, it’s also providing fresh evidence that the new Republican Party is far more dangerously deluded than the old one. Remember, Christie isn’t even supposed to be the culture war candidate in his party — he’s the moderate.