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Vaccine Politics: Bowing at the Altar of Ignorance
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Listening to the attacks on vaccines, I’m reminded of the closing line in The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
And back we go - wasting our time, yet again, re-debating stuff that is settled science. We have lightweights like Rand Paul claiming that he has “heard of” cases where vaccinated kids have “wound up with profound mental disorders.” We have a new Senate that can barely rouse itself to acknowledge what virtually all scientists know to be true, that man is hurting the climate.
What’s next, a boats-against-the-current debate on whether cigarettes cause cancer?
But what’s most pathetic is that some politicians - this week it’s Rand Paul and Chris Christie - seem so eager to bow at the altar of ignorance. The ‘16 GOP primaries loom on the horizon, and some voters are probably jonesing for a candidate who’s willing to stick it to the nanny-state scientists. Granted, there are misguided Luddites in the Democratic electorate as well - lots of vaccine-haters live in rich California communities - but no Democratic presidential candidate with even an ounce of a sense would ever think to indulge them.
Maybe Christie’s worst line - aside from his insistence that parents should have the “choice” on whether to vaccinate their kids against disease - was this: “Not every vaccine is created equal, and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others.” It’s hard to know what he was talking about. He seemed to be suggesting that parents should refuse whatever kid vaccines they deem unimportant - like maybe for measles, or diphtheria, or influenza, or the human papillomavirus.
For seemingly endorsing the notion that parents should have the right to defy government mandates and cherry-pick the vaccines of their choosing, Christie got rightly toasted on Twitter - by Republican strategist Rick Wilson: “I’m as libertarian as it comes, but the social contract includes not letting your kids die of preventable diseases or spread them to others....(His) statement is wildly irresponsible for a public figure,” and has “disqualified” him as a credible candidate.
But Rand Paul is the bigger joke this week, by dint of his doltish foray onto Michele Bachmann turf.
Perhaps you remember Bachmann’s anti-science mishap during a 2011 debate. While railing against Rick Perry’s HPV vaccine, she claimed that the vaccine causes mental retardation. She said this without a shred of evidence - because there wasn’t any. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had tallied 35 million doses of the vaccine, yet hadn’t found a single case of mental retardation.
Paul’s most notorious remark - “I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines” - is in sync with the Bachmann spirit. As one pediatrician wrote the other day, “If (Paul) 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.”
Fortunately for the GOP, saner voices have surfaced. Down in Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal said that all kids should be vaccinated. And Ben Carson, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon, said on Tuesday: “Although I strongly believe in individual rights and the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, I also recognize that public health and public safety are extremely important in our society.”
When the likes of Ben Carson - who has likened Obamacare to slavery, who has compared the U.S government to Nazi Germany - comes off as one of the saner voices, you know that the GOP has to get itself right with science. And stop boating against the current.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia ( and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at