NEW YORK -- Comments made during a tour of a flu vaccine factory in Cambridge, England, have reignited one of American society’s most divisive debates – whether it’s right for parents to withhold vaccinations for their children.
On Monday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, responded to a question on vaccinations, stating: "Mary Pat and I have had our children vaccinated, and we think that it’s an important part of being sure we protect their health and the public health."
Christie, on a three-day trade visit to the United Kingdom, then added: "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.” In short, individual parent’s wishes could override issues of public health.
It’s a line Christie has peddled before, however Monday’s assertion came amid a measles outbreak in the US in which more than 100 people have fallen ill in California and its neighbouring states.
The current outbreak has re-raised questions about the validity of parents opting not to vaccinate their children, many choosing not to do so because of a debunked article published in the Lancet in 1998 that suggested a link between MMR vaccinations and autism in children. The article's author, Dr Andrew Wakefield, was later struck off.
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention said that most of the children affected by the current outbreak had not been vaccinated with the MMR jab, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella.
Having made the comments, Christie’s office released a hasty retraction, saying "with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated," while the governor canceled two planned media appearances in England on Tuesday.
Still, other presidential candidates were quick to jump into the debate in opposition and support of Christie.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who represents the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party, said on Monday that he knew of cases in which “walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines”. Remarkably, Paul is a former eye surgeon, yet came out on the side of the widely discredited science, possibly as a sop to the anti-government bent of his supporters.
Paul's office later clarified his comments, making clear that vaccines do work.
Fellow doctor Ben Carson, another presidential hopeful, went the other way, erring towards public health. He said: "Although I strongly believe in individual rights and the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, I also recognise that public health and public safety are extremely important in our society."
Texas Senator Ted Cruz walked a similar narrow path, backing public health while recognising parental rights. He told the Mail Online on Tuesday: “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. We vaccinate both our girls, and encourage all parents to do the same.”
One problem for Republicans is that President Obama forcefully came out in favour of vaccinations on Sunday, stating in a TV interview: “There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren't reasons to not.”
The polarisation of American political culture means that anything Obama supports, the Republicans have to oppose however the debate over vaccinations is not clearly defined by left or right. The centre of the anti-vaccination movement is liberal California, not a red state in the Deep South, leaving potential presidential candidates walking a tightrope.
Not so Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party frontrunner sending a tweet on Monday that was unambiguous:
Outbreaks of this type have not been confined to the US. According to AP, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control registered more than 4,100 cases in Europe last year arising from children not being vaccinated.