Democrats were gleeful when Republicans Chris Christie and Rand Paul got tangled this week in the debate over the Disneyland measles outbreak, until similar words from the pasts of President Obama and 2016 front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton came out.
Mr. Christie walked back his recent comments calling for “balance” and a role for “parental choice” on childhood vaccines, saying in a Monday statement that “with a disease like measles, there’s no question kids should be vaccinated.”
But the Democratic posturing as the party of science was short-lived. Several websites promptly dug up a comment from Mr. Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign in which he said the research on whether vaccines cause autism was “inconclusive.”
Then it was reported Tuesday that Mrs. Clinton had responded to a questionnaire during the 2008 presidential primary race from a vaccine skeptics group in which she said, “I am committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines.”
The episode reveals that the emotionally charged vaccination issue has political pitfalls for both parties as candidates line up for the 2016 presidential contest, even though a Pew Research Center report released last week shows Democrats and Republicans alike strongly support childhood vaccinations.
A left-right coalition
For Republicans, the trick lies with soothing the party’s libertarian wing, which reflexively resists government intervention in the decision-making of parents. For Democrats, the challenge is figuring out how to put Republicans on the ropes without alienating the large pockets of “anti-vaxxers” in heavily Democratic areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“This is one of those cases where the far left and the far right converge,” said Republican political strategist Dick Wadhams. “I just think it’s poor judgment for anyone to suggest that children should not be vaccinated. It defies logic that someone could even suggest that in this day and age.”
Democrats jumped on the issue this week following comments by Mr. Christie and Mr. Paul, Kentucky Republican, who said Monday that vaccines “ought to be voluntary” during a radio interview with host Laura Ingraham.
“I’m not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they are a good thing, but I think the parent should have some input,” said Mr. Paul, an ophthalmologist who added that he did have his children vaccinated. “The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own the children.”
Mr. Christie and Mr. Paul are both oft-mentioned potential candidates for the 2016 GOP nomination, making them juicy targets for the Democratic National Committee, which released a statement Monday blasting the Republicans as anti-science.
“Republican after Republican is bowing to the rhetoric of the anti-vaccination movement instead of standing up for the science supported by almost all doctors and scientists on protecting our kids and keeping our nation safe,” the Democratic National Committee said in a Monday statement.
Mrs. Clinton chimed in with a Tuesday post on Twitter saying, “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork,” she tweeted. “Let’s protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest.”
But Democrats have their own cultural vulnerabilities on the issue. Among the communities hit hardest by the recent measles outbreak are Los Angeles and the Bay Area, where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans and where the anti-vaccination movement is on the rise.
Such Democratic environmentalist icons as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. have directly blamed vaccines for a rise in autism despite a lack of support by the major scientific and medical organizations.
“Democrats love to masquerade as if they have no extremists in their party, and this is a classic case that exposes their own far left,” Mr. Wadhams said.
A Sept. 10 analysis in the Hollywood Reporter found that vaccination rates have plummeted at some of Los Angeles County’s most exclusive schools, while incidents of whooping cough and measles among children in Southern California are on the rise.
A study released Sunday in Pediatrics found that underimmunization rates in California have risen from 8.1 percent in 2002-2005 to 12.4 percent in 2010-2012.
By contrast, the state with the lowest rates of nonimmunization statewide is Mississippi, a state that, despite its conservatism and religiosity, is one of only two in the nation with a state school vaccination requirement that doesn’t even have a religious exemption. (The other is West Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.)
“It’s no secret that anti-vaccine sentiments run high on the West Side,” said the Hollywood Reporter article, referring to the wealthy Democratic Los Angeles County enclave, which includes Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.
“But the data reveals a community where ambiguous fears about the perceived threat of immunization have in fact caused a very real threat,” the article continues. “This is a hard topic to discuss, especially here in Hollywood.”
The ‘Whole Foods’ standard
In a 2011 interview, author Seth Mnookin released a book called “The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Austism Controversy” debunking anti-vaccine theories, and he noted in an interview with Science Magazine that they tend to follow a kind of green cultural liberalism that views with suspicion unnatural technologies such as pharmaceuticals.
“I talked to a public health official and asked him what’s the best way to anticipate where there might be higher-than-normal rates of vaccine noncompliance, and he said take a map and put a pin wherever there’s a Whole Foods. I sort of laughed, and he said, ‘No, really, I’m not joking.’ It’s those communities with the Prius-driving, composting, organic food-eating people,” he said.
Another potential threat to public health stems from the influx of illegal immigrants, an issue that was broached Tuesday by Rep. Mo Brooks, Alabama Republican. Like many other Republicans, he has fought to tighten border security over the objections of Democrats.
“I don’t think there is any health care professional who has examined the facts who can honestly say Americans have not died because the disease is brought into America by illegal aliens who are not properly health care screened as lawful immigrants are,” Mr. Brooks told radio host Matt Murphy on WAPI-AM in Birmingham.
His comment was promptly ridiculed in a post on the left-wing website ThinkProgress, which called his theory a “red herring” and said the only evidence of foreigners carrying in diseases was “a few incidents of cases traced to European travelers.”
That wasn’t how Dr. Marc Siegel described the situation in a July article in the liberal online publication Slate. His op-ed, “A Public Health Crisis at the Border,” argued that the flood of unaccompanied minors “in poor health or suffering from a communicable illness who enter this country illegally create[s] public health risks.”
“There have been reports of measles and chicken pox at the [processing] centers, both of which are highly contagious and can spread to other children who aren’t vaccinated,” said Dr. Siegel, medical director of Doctor Radio at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.
Politicians get involved
As the number of measles cases climbs over 100, politicians are increasingly under pressure to take a stand on what was not long ago a nonissue. Ben Carson, another potential Republican presidential contender, came out squarely in favor of vaccinations in a statement Monday.
“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,” said Mr. Carson, a former neurosurgeon in a statement to The Hill.
“Certain communicable diseases have been largely eradicated by immunization policies in this country, and we should not allow those diseases to return by foregoing safe immunization programs for philosophical, religious or other reasons when we have the means to eradicate them,” Mr. Carson said.
As the issue and the politics mushroomed, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday that “the president believes it shouldn’t require a law to exercise common sense and do the right thing. The science and the expert guidance is crystal-clear.”
He also downplayed his boss’ — and, by extension, Mrs. Clinton’s — 2008 comments about vaccines and autism, saying that the study that raised questions about a link has since been “completely undermined.”
The publisher of the major study suggesting a link — the prestigious British journal The Lancet, in a 1998 paper — indeed only repudiated the article in 2010, citing fraud by researcher Andrew Wakefield, who is now banned from practicing medicine.
Nevertheless, as Democrats and environmentalists say is the case with climate change today, there was overwhelming consensus in 2008, if not absolute unanimity, on the lack of a link between vaccines and autism. The Lancet study had come under withering criticism for, among other things, a sample size of 12.
“It should have been clear to any science reporter that there was no way to draw the conclusion [Mr. Wakefield] did from that study. Even if his data were reliable, even if none of the issues of selection bias and fraud had ever come up, drawing huge, broad conclusions from a 12-person case study is absolutely preposterous,” Mr. Mnookin said.
According to a 2008 CNN report on an autism lawsuit, “The CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, Institute of Medicine and other prestigious medical organizations maintain there is no known link between vaccines and autism. Studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine and elsewhere also have found no link.”
“The government has made absolutely no statement indicating that vaccines are a cause of autism,” Dr. Julie Gerberding, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at the time.
Nevertheless, both House Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell found themselves making statements supporting vaccinations Tuesday, as did such Republican presidential contenders as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
As for Mr. Paul, he tweeted a photo of himself getting a booster shot and issued a statement rebutting claims he and/or his party is anti-science.
“It just annoys me that I’m being characterized as someone who’s against vaccines,” Mr. Paul said.
“There’s 400 headlines now that say ‘Paul says vaccines cause mental disorders,’” he said. “That’s not what I said. I said I’ve heard of people who’ve had vaccines, and they see a temporal association, and they believe that.”
• David Sherfinski and Dave Boyer contributed to this report.