SHUT UP

Doctor to Chris Christie: You Make My Job Impossible

As a pediatrician, clueless politicians like Chris Christie—who says parents should have a choice when it comes to vaccines—make my already tough job even harder.

02.02.15 4:26 PM ET

Every so often, an elected official says something clarifying. The issue may vary, but the effect is the same regardless of the details. Once the statement is made, it’s clear that under no circumstances will I be able to consider voting for him or her.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie just made such a statement. Speaking outside the English offices of an American pharmaceutical company, Gov. Christie had this to say about vaccines:

““It’s more important what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official. 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.”

I admire his precision in getting the issue utterly, perfectly wrong.

It seems the potential GOP field is in a race to see who can pander to the anti-science medical Luddites populating the anti-vaccine movement. Not to be outdone by his rival from New Jersey, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul decided to throw his surgical cap into the ring.

In an interview with CNBC earlier today, Sen. Paul commented that vaccines should be “voluntary” and that a parent’s right to refuse them is “an issue of freedom.”

Fair enough, as far as it goes. Parents should be free to refuse vaccines for their kids, and then should be free to find a place to educate them other than a public school. Because responsible parents should be free of anxiety that the herd immunity that protects their own children is being steadily eroded by self-centered peers.

However, not to be outdone by Gov. Christie, Sen. Paul took it a step further.

“I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines,” he said in the same interview.

Bullshit. Pure, unalloyed bullshit.

It would be disgraceful enough if this were coming from any other pandering politician, but is particularly contemptible from Sen. Paul. He’s a physician, and certainly knows better than to reference a handful of idle anecdotes as any kind of evidence. If he presented a scientific paper at a conference and expected data of that sort to be taken seriously, he’d be laughed out of the room.

Between them, Sen. Paul and Gov. Christie have left a shameful mark on their party’s prospects in two years. Neither of them have any business being in charge of American public health policy.

Public officials are the ones who put in place our public health policies. It is those policies that ensure, to the greatest degree possible, our shared health and safety. It is a public official who, say, makes the call to quarantine a nurse despite there being no clinical indication for doing so. And it is public officials who determine what requirements, if any, attach to students’ vaccination status with regard to attending public schools.

The craven deference to misguided parental prerogatives is what creates pockets of under-vaccinated children, and sets the stage for measles outbreaks exactly like the one we’re all enjoying right now. Gov. Christie just handed a talking point to any number of anti-vaccine groups, who will happily brandish his quote supporting their self-centered campaign to avoid responsibility for undermining our collective health. By making what parents think the trump card in the vaccination debate, rather than the overwhelming mass of scientific evidence that firmly establishes the effectiveness and safety of immunizations, he’s demonstrated an egregious willingness to play politics with the nation’s protection against preventable illness.

This is all the more shocking, given his boisterously protective posture during the Ebola hysteria. As measles has now sickened more people in America than Ebola did by a couple orders of magnitude, it’s rather perplexing that suddenly Gov. Christie is all about freedom when an infectious disease is on the line. I’m not sure how many votes vaccine-phobic Marin County was going to toss his way under the best of circumstances, but it’s clear he’s going to make a play for them anyway.

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Policies that allow parents to refuse vaccinations but send their kids to public schools anyway should become more restrictive, not less. Doing so in California, where the most measles cases during the current outbreak have occurred, has already made a difference in lowering refusal rates. (I still believe the ability to simply state a religious objection is too lax.) While I agree that parents ultimately should have the right to refuse, there is no reason to shield them from the ramifications of that refusal, including having to find an alternative to public schools. The burden should be on them to live with the consequences of their ill-informed decisions, not the responsible majority who choose otherwise.

However, not 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.”

I’m sincerely confused by what he’s getting at. It’s certainly true that some vaccine components are more effective than others, and that the illnesses prevented vary in severity. On its own, for example, rubella is a relatively mild illness. Is that what he’s getting at? Because we vaccinate against it to prevent the birth defects it can cause if it infects a pregnant woman. Under the circumstances of an outbreak of disease with a highly effective vaccine, and which can cause pneumonia, brain inflammation or death, it boggles the mind to consider that he might be referring to measles.

No, unless 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.

Gov. Christie’s new statement, combined with prior ones in which he indicated a distressing sympathy to the much-debunked belief that vaccines cause autism, make it clear that he either doesn’t understand the science behind vaccine safety, or he’s perfectly willing to ignore it. He is either foolish or mendacious. Both of them are utterly unacceptable in a presidential candidate.

Note: Since writing my article about Gov. Christie, it's come to light that both President Obama and his GOP opponent Sen. John McCain made lamentably ill-informed comments about a link between autism and vaccines, which was well understood to be non-existent in 2008 when they both made them. While we can all be grateful the President has evolved on the issue of vaccine safety since then, the only honest thing I can say about his comments back then is that I'm glad I was unaware of them at the time. The words are no less stupid coming from his mouth then as they are from Gov. Christie today.