Political Immunization

Gridlocked D.C. Finds Common Ground on Vaccines and Measles

02.04.15 1:30 AM ET

Washington, D.C. is finally seeing a bipartisan consensus emerge on an important issue: the measles.

In the wake of controversial comments about vaccination from two Republican presidential hopefuls, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, politicians from both parties are coming together to proclaim their support of vaccines.

Presidential candidates from both parties have been scrambling to explain their stance on vaccines after Christie hedged on a question Monday about vaccination, saying that when it comes to vaccines, there is a “balance that the government has to decide…. Not every vaccine is created equal, and not every disease type is as great a public-health threat as others.” In the furor that followed, Paul inflamed the controversy, saying in a CNBC interview “I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines. I’m not arguing vaccines are a bad idea, I think they’re a good thing. But I think the parents should have some input.”

While both have since backed off their comments, (Paul has gone so far as to get himself photographed getting a booster shot on Tuesday) with a measles outbreak raging across the country, it has started a new debate on vaccination. In particular, on the merits of mandatory vaccination of all children, which currently is required only in Mississippi and West Virginia. The result is that everyone thinking of running for president or just serving in high office got the question and they all answered it roughly the same.

House Speaker John Boehner told reporters, “I don’t know that we need another law, but I do believe that all children ought to be vaccinated,” He was echoed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said “as a victim of polio myself I’m a big fan of vaccinations.” McConnell, though, dodged on the question of whether there should be mandatory vaccinations for children.

Among the Republican presidential hopefuls on Capitol Hill, Florida Senator Marco Rubio told reporters, “Absolutely, children should be fully vaccinated.” He took pains to note, though, “There should always be exceptions for children that are immune suppressed” and suffering from diseases such as leukemia. He also went out of his way to refute those who have connected vaccination with an increased rate of autism, saying “there is no science that I’ve seen which is compelling which has seen a link between [vaccines] and autism.” Ted Cruz of Texas echoed this in a statement, saying, “Vaccines have had tremendous public health benefits in terms of eradicating diseases and limiting the impact of other diseases. Most states include an exception clause for good faith religious convictions, and that’s an appropriate judgment for the states to make. But on the question of whether kids should be vaccinated, the answer is obvious, and there’s widespread agreement: of course they should.”

These remarks have been echoed by other presidential hopefuls, including Scott Walker, Ben Carson and Bobby Jindal.

Among the GOP long-shot candidates, former New York Governor George Pataki joked today, “I thought that issue was resolved at Valley Forge when Washington vaccinated his troops against smallpox.” And a spokesman for John Bolton told The Daily Beast that he “supports mandatory vaccines for the prevention of epidemics.”

Not all Republican candidates have weighed in. Neither spokesmen for former Governor Mike Huckabee nor former Senator Rick Santorum have responded to requests for comment from The Daily Beast on this issue.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton tweeted Monday night, “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest,” Other potential Democratic contenders echoed her remarks. Lis Smith, a spokesperson for former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, told The Daily Beast, “Governor O’Malley believes it is critically important for every family to vaccinate their children.” Further, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, (an independent socialist who caucuses with the Democrats) said, “I think obviously vaccinations work. Vaccination has worked for many, many years.” He went on to note, “I am sensitive to the fact that there are some families who disagree but the difficulty is if I have a kid who is suffering from an illness who is subjected to a kid who walks into a room without vaccines that could kill that child and that’s wrong.”

This bipartisan support for vaccination is big contrast from 2008, when both Democrats and Republicans were at least willing to consider and pay polite attention to the arguments of those who claimed that there was a link between vaccination and autism. Scientific studies have since definitely shown that the two are totally unrelated.

The debate over vaccination is not likely to linger through the 2016 election cycle. After all, aside from a handful on the fringes—be they conspiracy theorists who worry about vaccines as part of a government-sponsored plot to control them, or hippies who believe that the mumps are part of a truly organic lifestyle—there is a strong consensus on the necessity of vaccines. In fact, the fierce bipartisan backlash against anti-vaxxers may even strengthen the hand of vaccination advocates as they push to combat the ongoing measles outbreak.

In the meantime, with Capitol Hill deadlocked over immigration policy, the budget, and a possible shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security, it’s unlikely that this kind of bipartisanship will prove infectious.