I’m not an “anti-vaxer”. I support vaccinations administered to children, with the aim of preventing disease, and in accordance with dosage sizes and schedules recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
With that disclaimer out of the way, lately I’ve become interested in the variety of responses to statements about vaccines that were made during last week’s CNN GOP Debate. In particular, the questionable statements were made by three candidates: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Rand Paul.
To summarize each candidate’s statements very briefly, we’ll begin with Trump, who cited vaccines while noting that “autism has become an epidemic.” Carson then responded:
“We have extremely well-documented proof that there’s no autism associated with vaccinations. Vaccines are very important. Certain ones, the ones that would prevent death or crippling, [but] there are others, a multitude of vaccines that don’t fit in that category, and there should be some discretion in those cases. I am totally in favor of vaccines, but I want smaller doses over a longer period of time.”
Rand Paul responded also, saying, “I’m all for vaccines, but I’m also for freedom,” he said. “Even if the science doesn’t say bunching them up is a problem, I ought to have the right to say I want to spread them out.”
Now that we have the quotes in front of us, my general observations are as follows:
- Once again, Donald Trump comes across sounding misinformed, and willing to pander to conspiracy theories
- Ben Carson, while more well-informed, made fairly general statements, and was not specific about the kinds of vaccines he feels “don’t fit in that category” (i.e. certain important childhood vaccines). This, in effect, leaves him wide open to ridicule
- Rand Paul has been similarly criticized for questioning vaccine dosages and scheduling as it relates to parental choice; however, it seems evident that his intention was to address the legislative aspect of the discussion, as it relates to federal policy.
What follows is not a defense of Paul, nor anyone else’s statements. Whether or not you agree with the scientific interpretations of such issues as expressed by the candidates, it would appear that Paul especially, and Carson to a lesser degree, were attempting to address the issue as it relates to federal policy. Paul’s quote is particularly evidential of this intention.
On the subject of federal policy in relation to vaccines, I came across an interesting paper archived at Harvard University’s LEDA (Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America) site. The paper, written by Catherine M. McCarty, is titled, “Mandatory Vaccines: Questionable Federal Policy Informing Questionable State Laws.” In the article, an extensive overview of vaccinations is given, as well as the implications of vaccinations in relation to things like bioterrorism in a post-9-11 America. Anthrax, smallpox, and a host of other diseases and their vaccines are discussed, as well as some precedent for risks associated with vaccines, as well as varieties which may fall under Dr. Carson’s vaccines that “don’t fit that category” as far as mandatory childhood vaccines should go (i.e. vaccinations against non-serious diseases, or even those which are noncommunicable, and acquired under obscure environmental conditions). McCarty writes:
“In light of the number of significant risks inherent in any vaccine and the potential for human error, why do the CDC and FDA, continue to recommend more and more vaccines against often non-serious diseases to children? Do these recommendations make good public health policies? Would these vaccine requirements withstand a constitutional challenge under the principles of Jacobson? Two of the newer vaccines in the pre-kindergarten regime include Chickenpox (Varicella) and Hepatitis B. Forty-two states now require vaccination against Hepatitis B, and twenty-seven, now twenty-eight states require vaccination against Chickenpox. Evaluating these vaccines as currently recommended, I suggest that neither do these recommendations make good policy, nor could these requirements withstand a constitutional challenge.”
Examining the situation from the perspective of federal policy is interesting; I advise people who read the paper to please try to abstain from making predeterminate decisions (particularly in a visceral or emotive way) while examining the issue as it relates to law and government, which need not necessarily be interpreted as an “anti-vaccination” argument. Lawmakers discuss these issues, and in this way, for obvious reasons: these issues do have an effect on the greater populace, and they do occasionally bring to light considerations with relation to laws, rights, and freedoms guaranteed to Americans. These considerations, in and of themselves, need not be interpreted as constituting an argument against vaccinations. The entire Harvard LEDA paper by Catherine McCarty can be read here.
Further, I think that when we observe the various political commentary being presented on the issue in the media right now (such as this Forbes OpEd on the subject), it is important to understand the proper context for some of the statements which the GOP candidates are now being criticized over. Arguably, some of the commentators on this issue are working very hard at doing precisely that: taking certain statements out of their proper context, vague though they may have been (especially in Carson’s case, who as many will note, probably isn’t the most eloquent speaker among the GOP candidates, despite his surgical background).
In summary, I still disagree with Trump vehemently, and find him to be an uninformed clown pandering to the similarly uninformed contingencies within the public for votes. Carson was better in his approach, but needs to remember that anything he says without proper clarification may be used against him (in other words, perhaps he should have made more specific mention of things like noncommunicable diseases, etc, if that’s even what he had been referring to in the first place). Rand Paul, on the other hand, said he was “all for vaccines.” Perhaps we should take his word for it, rather than trying to read into his statements by framing them in an entirely different context, which is aimed purely at politicization, rather than any actual discussion of the issues.
Trumps comment is an old ant-vaxx trope. They don’t bother to take the fact that the spectrum of autistic related symptoms has been widened and or sophistication at diagnosing then has got much better.
The rest of the issue is about risk vs reward. Chickenpox may be relatively harmless though as with any illness you risk complications, it can also lead to the much more painful shingles in adult life. The temptation is to assume at some point we’re just pandering to the greed of pharmaceutical companies but really the risks associated with vaccines are so low that even harmless illnesses might be worth vaccinating against.
I also can’t buy into the idea that it’s an issue of self determination. If you want to live in a society you have to take on some responsibility for that. There’s an old saying about libertarians that says (excuse my language) ‘only a libertarian would think that the guy living at the headwaters of a river has the right to shit in the water. ‘