I believe that parents should vaccinate their children. Because children are vulnerable, the media have a responsibility to inform parents about the risks involved when they don't vaccinate their children.
Instead, I see news outlets turning vaccines into a political issue starring anti-science Republicans in need of correction by pro-science Democrats. "Measles moves to forefront for GOP," read the San Francisco Chronicle's Wednesday headline. "Potential presidential hopefuls jump into vaccination debate." You see, GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, an ophthalmologist who should know better, spoke of "many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound medical disorders after vaccines." Paul also said vaccines are "a good thing" but parents should have "some input." New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another Republican, said his children are vaccinated but he believes "parents need to have some measure of choice in things." Team Christie sort of walked back that vanilla remark later.
That was too late for The Washington Post, which editorialized that Paul's and Christie's comments "call into question their judgment and their fitness for higher office."
To read the Chronicle, you might think that parents in liberal Marin County, California, or a similar low-vaccination-rate enclave have been listening too much to GOP presidential hopefuls. Blue California is one of 17 states that allow "personal belief" exemptions, in addition to religious exemptions. Already, California lawmakers are working on legislation to end the personal philosophy exemption.
Here's the problem.
Though Paul shamelessly repeated discredited misinformation about vaccines, he and Christie are right about parental choice. Even the Obama White House thinks so. At a press briefing Tuesday, spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters, "The president believes it shouldn't require a law for people to exercise common sense and do the right thing." I agree.
The problem isn't anti-science; it's that good medicine worked. Vaccines virtually wiped out measles from 2000 to 2010, when there were fewer than 100 cases annually. Some parents were lulled into a false sense of security. With 90 cases reported in California last month, now they must confront the serious risk measles presents to their children. Most will wise up. Their doctors and school officials will lecture them. The system will work, and parents will retain their rights. The Wall Street Journal reports that the percentage of California kindergartners whose parents declined vaccinations has already fallen, from 3.2 last year to 2.5 this year.
As for Paul and Christie, their remarks pretty much reflect what Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton said in 2008. Both Democrats called for more research into whether there is a link between vaccines and autism. They had more political cover because it was not until 2010 that The Lancet retracted the 1998 article that started the vaccine-autism conspiracies. The experts got it wrong. It took The Lancet 12 years to fix a huge mistake. So maybe Washington and Sacramento can take a deep breath before deciding there's a pressing need for new laws that trample on parents' rights.