Is anyone really surprised that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie equivocated about the urgency of vaccinating children against measles, mumps and rubella on a trip to England, where he is attempting to burnish his foreign policy credentials in advance of his anticipated presidential campaign?
After all, here is a politician who vetoed a popular New Jersey ban on gestation crates for pregnant sows last year because Iowa farmers might look askance at such a measure. Why would New Jersey’s governor care what Iowa farmers think of him? Same reason he might care what people concerned about government healthcare mandates — like vaccinations — think of him.
At a moment when measles — declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000 --has made a resurgence in this country, thanks in part to misguided parents who refuse to vaccinate their children for reasons that include unfounded fear of autism and not wanting to be pushed around by doctors, Christie had the chance to be a leader and instead, he whiffed.
His response was almost as bad as Rep. Michele Bachmann’s appalling assertion on national television during the last Republican presidential primary campaign that she knew a woman whose daughter became mentally disabled after receiving the HPV vaccine. (Actually, the HPV vaccine was something of a subtext for 2012 Republican contenders. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was hammered for ordering all sixth-grade girls in Texas to receive the vaccine in 2007 before backing down amid an outcry about government overreach, and revelations that he’d received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the vaccine’s maker, Merck.)
As my colleague David Lauter reported, Christie was visiting a pharmaceutical company in Cambridge on Monday when he was asked by a reporter whether Americans should vaccinate their children, given the current measles outbreak, which took hold at Disneyland in December, and now involves at least 102 reported cases in 14 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The only reponsible answer was, “Yes. Of course.”
Instead, Christie wobbled. He noted that his four children are vaccinated against measles, but refused to take a stand on behalf of other people’s children. “It’s more important what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official,” he said. “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.”
That would have been an appropriate response to a question about, say, who decides whether a 6-year-old boy is ready for first grade. Or whether a smart kid should be moved to gifted classes. But immunizations as a choice? No. With rare exceptions, they are a social responsibility.
My colleague Michael Hiltzik, a fierce critic of "anti-vaxxers," has mused whether parents who refuse to immunize their children against diseases like measles should be made to pay for the cost of outbreaks, or even face criminal penalties. He has also suggested that medical boards ought to think about stripping credentials from doctors who encourage this sort of irresponsibility. Those ideas might be extreme, but they are well worth raising, not least because they might scare some sense into parents and pediatricians.
But major political figures like Christie should get no wiggle room when they try to put personal political ambition above public health.
On Sunday, President Obama showed how it’s done. In an interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, he was forthright about the importance of vaccinating children against measles:
"A major success of our civilization," he said, is "the ability to prevent diseases that in the past have devastated folks. And measles is preventable. I understand that there are families that in some cases are concerned about the effect of vaccinations. The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not.”
Instead of making cynical calculations about how messages about choice might play with voters in Iowa, politicians like Christie should offer nothing but straight talk about childhood immunizations. Lives depend on it.