One of the last questions that came up during the CNN-sponsored Republican presidential primary debate (click video) on September 16, 2015 had to do with vaccines. Moderator Jake Tapper asked candidate and former pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson:
A backlash against vaccines was blamed for a measles outbreak here in California. Dr. Carson, Donald Trump has publicly and repeatedly linked vaccines, childhood vaccines, to autism, which, as you know, the medical community adamantly disputes. You’re a pediatric neurosurgeon. Should Mr. Trump stop saying this?1
The question seemed to take everybody by surprise because, up to that point, the debate had focused primarily on issues such as illegal immigration, Iran, tax reform, the economy and jobs, national security and terrorism, the Middle East, social security, criminal justice reform, and climate change. Vaccines seemed to have come out of left field.
Well, let me put it this way, there has… there have been numerous studies, and they have not demonstrated that there is any correlation between vaccinations and autism. This was something that was spread widely 15 or 20 years ago, and it has not been adequately, you know, revealed to the public what’s actually going on. Vaccines are very important. Certain ones. The ones that would prevent death or crippling. There are others, there are a multitude of vaccines which probably don’t fit in that category, and there should be some discretion in those cases. But, you know, a lot of this is… is… is pushed by big government. And I think that’s one of the things that people so vehemently want to get rid of, big government. You know, we have 4.1 million federal employees. Six hundred and fifty federal agencies and departments. That’s why they have to take so much of our taxes.1
Tapper seemed to want to stay on the topic of vaccines instead of allowing the exchange to transition back to taxes or the philosophical issue of big government. He followed up quickly, “Should he stop saying it? Should he stop saying that vaccines cause autism?”
Well, you know, I’ve just explained it to him. He can read about it if he wants to. I think he’s an intelligent man and will make the correct decision after getting the real facts.1
Tapper switched over to candidate and multi-billionaire businessman Donald Trump:
Mr. Trump, as president, you would be in charge of the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, both of which say you are wrong. How would you handle this as president?1
Autism has become an epidemic. Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of control. I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time. Because you take a baby in… and I’ve seen it… and I’ve seen it, and I had my children taken care of over a long period of time, over a two or three year period of time. Same exact amount, but you take this little beautiful baby, and you pump… I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child, and we’ve had so many instances, people that work for me. Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic. I only say it’s not… I’m in favor of vaccines, do them over a longer period of time, same amount.1
But just in… in little sections.1
I think… and I think you’re going to have… I think you’re going to see a big impact on autism.1
Tapper went back to Carson. “Dr. Carson, you just heard his medical take.”1
But, you know, the fact of the matter is, we have extremely well-documented proof that there’s no autism associated with vaccinations. But it is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time. And a lot of pediatricians now recognize that, and, I think, are cutting down on the number and the proximity in which those are done, and I think that’s appropriate.1
At that point, Tapper addressed candidate, ophthalmologist and current U.S. Senator from Kentucky Rand Paul. “Dr. Paul? Dr. Paul, I’d like to bring you in.”1
One of the greatest… one of the greatest medical discoveries of all times was… were the vaccines, particularly for smallpox. And if you want to read a story, it’s called The Speckled Monster, it’s an amazing story, it was all done voluntary. But people came in by the droves. George Washington wouldn’t let his wife visit until she got vaccinated. So I’m all for vaccines. But I’m also for freedom. I’m also a little concerned about how they’re bunched up. My kids had all of their vaccines, and even if the science doesn’t say bunching them up is a problem, I ought to have the right to spread out my vaccines out a little bit at the very least.1
So there you have it. It turns out that on the matter of vaccines, there is a debate, after all. And it doesn’t seem to be confined to Carson, Trump and Paul. Republican candidate and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina addressed the question of vaccines at an Iowa town hall meeting in August.
Measles is one thing… When you have highly communicable diseases where you have a vaccine that’s proven, like measles or mumps, then I think a parent can make that choice, but then I think a school district is well within their rights to say, ‘I’m sorry, your child cannot then attend public school. So a parent has to make that trade-off. I think when we’re talking about some of these more esoteric immunizations, then I think absolutely a parent should have a choice and a school district shouldn’t be able to say, ‘sorry, your kid can’t come to school’ for a disease that’s not communicable, that’s not contagious, and where there really isn’t any proof that they’re necessary at this point.2
In an interview with BuzzFeed in January, Fiorina stated that she believed “parents have to make choices for their family and their children.”3
I think there’s a big difference between—just in terms of the mountains of evidence we have—a vaccination for measles and a vaccination when a girl is 10 or 11 or 12 for cervical cancer just in case she’s sexually active at 11. So, I think it’s hard to make a blanket statement about it. I certainly can understand a mother’s concerns about vaccinating a 10-year-old.3
I think vaccinating for measles makes a lot of sense. But that’s me. I do think parents have to make those choices. I mean, I got measles as a kid. We used to all get measles… I got chicken pox, I got measles, I got mumps.3
Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who is also a Republican candidate, has also been asked several times about his views on vaccines. On February 2, 2015, he said that “parents should have some measure of choice”4 with regard to vaccinating their children. He added, though, that he did not want to be misunderstood to mean that he absolutely wanted to leave the option to parents. He went on to say:
What I’m saying is that you have to have that balance in considering parental concerns because no parent cares about anything more than they care about protecting their own child’s health and so we have to have that conversation, but that has to move and shift in my view from disease type. Not every vaccine is created equal and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others. So that’s what I mean by that so that I’m not misunderstood.4
Yes they are. The conversation about vaccine science, policy and law has finally become a topic that can be discussed in a presidential debate because it is a serious topic that is clearly on everyone’s mind.
1 Reagan Library Debate: Later Debate Full Transcript. CNN Sept. 16, 2015.
2 Miller ZJ. Carly Fiorina Says Parents Should Have Right Not to Vaccinate Kids. TIME Aug. 13, 2015.
3 Coppins M. Carly Fiorina On Vaccinations: “Parents Have To Make Choices For Their Family”. BuzzFeed News Feb. 2. 2015.
4 Kaplan R. Chris Christie breaks with Obama on vaccines. CBS News Feb. 2, 2015.
5 Brumfield B and Kounang N. 5 myths surrounding vaccines — and the reality. CNN Sept. 17, 2015.