Commentary Magazine


Topic: vaccines

When Republicans Engage in Speculation from the Fever Swamps

In a March 2013 COMMENTARY essay Michael Gerson and I authored, we wrote this:

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In a March 2013 COMMENTARY essay Michael Gerson and I authored, we wrote this:

Republicans need to harness their policy views to the findings of science. This has been effectively done on the pro-life issue, with sonograms that reveal the humanity of a developing child. But the cause of scientific literacy was not aided during the recent [2012] primary season, when Michele Bachmann warned that “innocent little 12-year-old girls” were being “forced to have a government injection” to prevent the spread of the human papilloma virus, adding that some vaccines may cause “mental retardation.” Bachmann managed to combine ignorance about public health, indifference to cervical cancer, anti-government paranoia, and discredited conspiracy theories about vaccines into one censorious package.

It looks like Chris Christie and, especially, Rand Paul are picking up where Ms. Bachmann left off. In an interview, Doctor Paul said, “I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” The ophthalmologist, after stinging criticisms of his statements, made an effort to backtrack from them. “I did not say vaccines caused disorders,” Paul insisted, “just that they were temporally related. I did not allege causation.” Of course you didn’t. Just sayin’.

It might be easier to give the Kentucky Republican and libertarian more of the benefit of the doubt if he had not previously argued that mandatory vaccines were a first step toward “martial law.” One day it’s vaccines for measles; the next day it’s Tiananmen Square.

The claim that there’s a link between “profound mental disorders”–Senator Paul clearly has in mind autism–and vaccinations has long ago been shattered. (The link was asserted in a 1998 article in The Lancet by the British doctor Andrew Wakefield; it has since been completely discredited. This excellent Wall Street Journal editorial is worth reading in this context.)

This kind of fever swamp speculation will hurt Senator Paul’s reputation, which is fine by me. It’s no secret I’m not a particular fan of his. But let me tell you what does concern me about this kind of talk from Paul, as well as from Governor Christie, who earlier this week echoed sentiments he expressed in a 2009 letter he sent to potential voters in which he said he had “met with families affected by autism,” many of whom had “expressed their concern over New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation vaccine mandates. I stand with them now, and will stand with them as their governor in their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children.” This has the effect of making the GOP look like the party of the benighted.

When probable Republican presidential candidates give voice to conspiracy theories–when they speak in ways that strike most people as bizarre and disturbing–it damages their party. In saying this, I understand that vaccinations won’t be a key issue in 2016. And a week from now, unless other Republicans make the same mistake (and to their credit it looks like most will not), the issue will die down.

But these kind of stumbles do considerably more harm, I think, than many people realize. They can break through in a way that, say, a substantive policy speech (or a dozen) does not; and in doing so they can feed a negative, even toxic, impression about a party and a political movement. Voters who don’t follow politics all that closely, when they hear stuff like this, come away thinking, “This must be the home of cranks and kooks.” Thanks to Rand Paul in particular, that charge is harder to refute than it was.

So let me conclude with a modest suggestion: Prominent Republicans–especially those who are interested in winning the GOP’s presidential nomination–should, for reasons having to do with epistemology and politics, conduct themselves in a manner that demonstrates that Republicans are at peace with, not at war with, science and medicine.

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Conspiracy Theorists Rule Congressional Autism Hearing

Who is better equipped to solve a major medical mystery, a handful American lawmakers or thousands of highly trained scientists worldwide? Unfortunately for Americans, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform decided that it was the former. The committee held a hearing billed as a conversation with experts on the growing rates of autism, but it was rife with anti-vaccination diatribes and conspiracy theories from members of Congress and their carefully chosen anti-vaccination witnesses. One congressman, Indiana Republican Dan Burton, let loose a rant filled with misinformation and conjecture about the safety of vaccines and their ability to harm children and adults. He told those at the hearing,

Vaccinations have an important place in our society. One of the best health regiments in the history of mankind: people live longer and live better and have less disease because we have vaccinations. What we have always opposed is putting toxic chemicals and metals in the vaccinations. Thimerosal contains mercury. When I was a boy, we used to have mercury in thermometers. They said if you break that thermometer and the mercury gets on your hands, that’s toxic.

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Who is better equipped to solve a major medical mystery, a handful American lawmakers or thousands of highly trained scientists worldwide? Unfortunately for Americans, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform decided that it was the former. The committee held a hearing billed as a conversation with experts on the growing rates of autism, but it was rife with anti-vaccination diatribes and conspiracy theories from members of Congress and their carefully chosen anti-vaccination witnesses. One congressman, Indiana Republican Dan Burton, let loose a rant filled with misinformation and conjecture about the safety of vaccines and their ability to harm children and adults. He told those at the hearing,

Vaccinations have an important place in our society. One of the best health regiments in the history of mankind: people live longer and live better and have less disease because we have vaccinations. What we have always opposed is putting toxic chemicals and metals in the vaccinations. Thimerosal contains mercury. When I was a boy, we used to have mercury in thermometers. They said if you break that thermometer and the mercury gets on your hands, that’s toxic.

But thimerosal has not been present in vaccines (save a few influenza shots) since 2001. Burton went on to discuss the dangers of a chemical that haven’t been used in vaccines in more than a decade. Thimerosal is not the same chemical found in thermometers, and the conjecture by Burton on its safety was an uninformed and dangerous attempt at understanding science that has already been settled by qualified professionals at the CDC and elsewhere. Burton went on about thimerosal, stating,

Ever since 1929, it [thimerosal] has not been completed tested. They continue to use it in vaccinations. It wasn’t so bad when a child got one vaccination or two or three. But when they get as many as 28 or 29 before they go into the first grade, it really hurts them. It creates a cumulative effect. The brain tissues do not chelate it. It stays in there and it causes severe, severe problems. 

If Burton had taken the time to visit the CDC website instead of cherry-picking experts (whom he later discusses) he would have discovered how thimerosal works in the body:

Thimerosal does not stay in the body a long time so it does not build up and reach harmful levels. When thimerosal enters the body, it breaks down, to ethylmercury and thiosalicylate, which are easily eliminated.

The rest of his diatribe can be as easily broken down by the FAQ section on the CDC website as well. The question-and-answer portion of the hearing was equally cringe-inducing. Forbes’s Steven Salzberg has an excellent post on the hearing, explaining its danger to public health:

Congress has every right to conduct oversight into medical research at the NIH and the CDC.  But when Dan Burton, Bob Posey, and others decide in advance what the science says, and abuse their power to demand “answers” that validate their badly mistaken beliefs, people can be harmed. Over the past decade, the anti-vaccine movement has successfully convinced millions of parents to leave their kids unvaccinated, and the result has been serious outbreaks of whooping cough, haemophilus, measles, chicken pox, and mumps around the U.S. and Europe.

Some anti-vax parents claim that these childhood illnesses aren’t so bad.  I wish they would talk to the parents of young children who have died in recent whooping cough outbreaks.  These illnesses can be deadly.

When Americans elect representatives to Congress, they are looking for lawmakers, not pseudoscientists. Fortunately, Burton is retiring at the end of this term; unfortunately, however, this hearing lent legitimacy to a movement of anti-vaccination activists who constitute a considerable danger to public health both nationally and internationally. 

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Vaccines Necessary in the First World, Not Just the Third

Yesterday at the UN several groups, including Rotary International, the World Health Organization, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation met to discuss their commitment to, and the strides made, campaigning to end polio worldwide. Yesterday Rotary announced,

The side event — “Our Commitment to the Next Generation: The Legacy of a Polio-free World” — brought together leaders of the remaining endemic countries, and representatives of donor governments, development agencies, the GPEI partners, and the media to underscore the urgent need to finish the job of global polio eradication. Although the wild poliovirus is endemic only in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria, other countries are still at risk for re-established transmission of the virus through its “importation” from the endemics.

Millions have been pledged towards the effort and we are slowly watching countries become polio-free. Unfortunately, polio and other preventable diseases could (and already are) facing a resurgence thanks to dangerous parenting fads in the West.

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Yesterday at the UN several groups, including Rotary International, the World Health Organization, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation met to discuss their commitment to, and the strides made, campaigning to end polio worldwide. Yesterday Rotary announced,

The side event — “Our Commitment to the Next Generation: The Legacy of a Polio-free World” — brought together leaders of the remaining endemic countries, and representatives of donor governments, development agencies, the GPEI partners, and the media to underscore the urgent need to finish the job of global polio eradication. Although the wild poliovirus is endemic only in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria, other countries are still at risk for re-established transmission of the virus through its “importation” from the endemics.

Millions have been pledged towards the effort and we are slowly watching countries become polio-free. Unfortunately, polio and other preventable diseases could (and already are) facing a resurgence thanks to dangerous parenting fads in the West.

For several years, rumors have spread through all-natural, hippie parenting circles that vaccines contain chemicals that cause autism. They maintain, despite a total lack of scientific evidence, that children have been disabled and incapacitated by mercury and other preservatives in vaccines. The one scientific study that might have made their case was discredited last year and its results thrown out. Despite this, many famous parents, including Jenny McCarthy (of MTV fame) and Mayim Bialik (TV’s Blossom) have publicly lambasted vaccine research while declaring their children to be unvaccinated. Unfortunately, these conspiracy theories have hit the political mainstream as well. During the primaries this year Rep. Michele Bachmann repeated rumors she heard from an audience member at a debate about vaccine safety. In 2008, both candidates for president spread vaccine misinformation, claiming that the science was still undecided on the link between vaccines and autism.

The millions of dollars raised and spent by governments and organizations to end polio worldwide is money well-spent. Unfortunately, one epidemic could undo the decades of work making this vaccine available to every child in the world. We’ve already seen outbreaks of deadly and entirely preventable diseases like whooping cough and the measles, and instances of diseases with vaccines available have increased as immunization opt-outs rise. While it’s admirable that these groups are working to make vaccines available in the most remote villages in the world, parents in Portland and other liberal epicenters are setting medical science back fifty years in the United States.

All children, regardless of their parent’s scientific ignorance, need and deserve access to vaccines that were developed not just for their own sake, but also for the sake of public health. After these groups manage to get vaccines to children in isolated villages in Pakistan, perhaps they should schedule a stop-over in on their way home to explain science to self-described “educated” parents. Public health groups should be emphasizing the importance of vaccines in Pakistan and in Park Slope lest their efforts become undermined by parents in the latter.

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