The debate over whether or not childhood vaccines should be mandatory came to a head this summer when California Governor Jerry Brown signed one of the country's strictest immunization requirements into law. But celebrities like Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy, and Toni Braxton aren't the only ones questioning vaccine safety. As the call for other states to follow California’s example grows stronger, it’s important to point out that several presidential candidates are against mandatory vaccination. And yes, it's 2015.
Medical experts are pretty much united on this: Vaccines are not only one of the most important medical advances of all time, but vaccines pose far less health risk than possible exposure to measles and other preventable illnesses. Still, experts have had an alarmingly difficult time convincing some parents about vaccine safety, despite overwhelming medical evidence that vaccines don't cause autism. It's true that more children are being diagnosed with autism: 1 in 68 children were placed on the autism spectrum in the United States last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control — up from 1 in 88 just two years ago and 1 in 150 in 2000.
The irony is that the fear over vaccines is posing more of a risk to children today than any proven link to the vaccines themselves. In 2014, California's ultra-lenient immunization guidelines meant that the state's overall immunization rate dipped well below the minimum the CDC calls for as parents exercised their ability to opt-out of the suggested immunization schedules and decline booster shots themselves, creating the perfect environment for the measles outbreak at Disneyland this past winter.
More than 80 percent of adults believe that vaccines are safe for healthy children, according to the Pew Research Center. Given the solid science behind vaccine safety, you would probably expect that the presidential candidates would take a common-sense stance in support of mandatory immunizations. Sadly, three of the presidential contenders seem immune to the facts about vaccine safety.
According to The Washington Post, while touring a U.K. vaccine manufacturer earlier this year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told reporters that the government should balance parental choice against public health concerns: "There has to be a balance and it depends on what the vaccine is, what the disease type is, and all the rest. Not every vaccine is created equal and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others."
The governor's office quickly attempted to clarify Christie's statement, telling the Post that there is "no question" the Republican candidate believes children should be vaccinated.
Sen. Rand Paul
Sen. Paul, who is an ophthalmologist, has framed vaccination as an issue about personal freedoms rather than public health and safety. Earlier this year, Paul said in an interview with CNBC that vaccines should be voluntary, arguing that there are "many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines."
Given Trump's tendency to ignore scientific fact — remember, Trump still believes climate change is a hoax — it's reasonable to assume that he'd express some skepticism about mandatory vaccinations. Well, Trump isn't just skeptical, he has fully embraced the argument that childhood vaccines cause autism, even though science has proven otherwise. As is his wont, Trump took to Twitter to rant about a supposed government conspiracy to hide what he calls the truth about vaccine safety.
Certainly, parents should have the ability to make important decisions about their child's health and the opportunity to question their doctor's recommendations. But vaccinations aren't just an individual choice. When parents choose not to vaccinate their kids, they're also making a health choice for children in their local schools and neighborhoods who can't get vaccinated.
That's why these candidates' statements are so problematic. By invoking arguments about personal freedom and choice, Trump, Paul, and Christie are themselves opting out of a much larger responsibility: to help the medical community protect the health of every child, by making sure that as many kids are vaccinated as possible.
Images: Getty Images (3)