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Playing Politics With Measles -- That's Pretty Sick

A pediatrician holds a dose of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine at his practice in Northridge, Calif. AP/Damian Dovarganes

Observing the Republican Party tangle itself up in the politics of measles is rare good news for Democrats who feared they were mired in a losing streak after the GOP gained control of Congress.

Some of the Republican presidential hopefuls are so desperate to win votes from the hard right-wingers who will dominate the phony media show known as the 2016 Iowa caucuses that they are pandering to those who believe that children are harmed by vaccinations against measles. The Iowa caucus-goers constitute a thin but influential slice of the electorate that will determine the 2016 Republican presidential nominee. Since Iowa is first and political writers are enamored with the place, the caucuses have a disproportionate influence on debate around the country on issues such as the measles epidemic.

At the heart of this particular debate is the question of whether parents should be required to have their children vaccinated.

The Associated Press’ Nicholas Riccardi and a team of AP reporters found that the controversy “has created strange alliances, putting some liberal parents on the same side as Republican conservatives.

“While the two parties are not clearly divided on the issue—various individual Democrats and Republicans stand on either side—in the nation’s state legislatures, it is increasingly the GOP that resists efforts to stiffen requirements on vaccinating kids.”

I strongly support mandatory vaccinations. I doubt if many of the vaccine deniers ever had measles or were in elementary school when every semester kids died of childhood ailments or were crippled by periodic summer epidemics of polio. Measles is a miserable disease, and potentially a killer. When I caught it in the 1940s, I was quarantined in our house and my room kept dark for fear the disease would blind me. I was bed-bound. The neighbor lady who cared for me while my parents were away at work warned me that if I got up, my measles would go inside my body. She may have meant measles encephalitis, which killed author Roald Dahl’s daughter Olivia in 1962.

Those childhood experiences made me and my wife, Nancy, rejoice when the measles vaccine and other inoculations emerged in time to immunize our young family.

I agree with Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who told reporters that the measles vaccine “is safe and effective. For a parent who doesn’t get a kid vaccinated, this is not only putting your own kid at risk, it is also putting the baby next door at risk and the kid down the street who has leukemia and can’t get vaccinated. The science on measles vaccination is very clear. Study after study has shown there are no long-term negative consequences of vaccinations. This is one thing that has been extremely well studied and as parents and CDC experts we would not recommend something that is not safe. I got my kids vaccinated and you should, too.”

Most people share that view. When the Pew Research Center pollsters asked whether vaccines for childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella (the MMR combination) and polio should be required or left up to parental choice, 68 percent of adults said such vaccines should be required while 30 percent said that parents should be able to decide. Younger adults are less inclined than older generations to believe vaccines should be required for all children: 37 percent of adults under age 50 said it should be up to parents, compared with 22 percent of those 50 and older.

A majority of Democrats (76 percent), Republicans (65 percent) and independents (65 percent) say vaccines should be required. But more Republicans and independents than Democrats say parents should make the decision.

As the Associated Press team reported, opposition to mandatory vaccinations is growing in state legislatures, with Republicans now controlling both chambers in the majority of statehouses. Maine Republicans are objecting to an effort to make it harder to avoid vaccinating children. Republicans in Colorado defeated the same sort of measure last year. Republicans in Minnesota were reluctant to support a bill expanding vaccinations. These statehouse Republicans tend to reflect the party’s most conservative elements on issues such as choice, marriage and mandatory vaccinations.

It is through them, in primaries, caucuses and grass-roots meetings, that the Republican presidential aspirants must navigate their way to the party’s nominating convention.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida has already established his credibility with this crowd by his actions in the well-known case of Terri Schiavo, who suffered irreversible brain damage. Bush, as governor, under authority of the just-passed “Terri’s Law,” ordered a feeding tube reinserted in 2003, contrary to the wishes of Schiavo’s husband. The courts overturned Bush’s decision, and Schiavo died. That action is likely to earn Bush a pass with the radical right despite what he said on vaccinations: “Parents ought to make sure their children are vaccinated. Parents have a responsibility to make sure their children are protected. Over and out.”

That’s not true of other contenders, who lack Bush’s Republican establishment backing and growing financial support. They must wriggle through the snake pit of the Republican right.

So Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey has said that although his children are vaccinated, “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.” He also said, “not every vaccine is created equal, and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others.”

And Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said, “I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines. I am not arguing that vaccines are a bad thing. I think they are a good thing. But I think the parents should have some input. The state doesn’t own your children, and there is an issue of freedom.”

For them, It’s a race toward the right, inflaming and politicizing an issue that scientific evidence — and a majority of Americans — say is not an issue at all.

Bill Boyarsky
Political Correspondent
Bill Boyarsky is a political correspondent for Truthdig. He is a former lecturer in journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Southern California. Boyarsky was city editor of…
Bill Boyarsky

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