Here We Go Again: Republican Candidates ‘Debate’ the Settled Science of Vaccines 

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Here We Go Again: Republican Candidates ‘Debate’ the Settled Science of Vaccines 

Martha Kempner

Republican candidates took on vaccines in Wednesday night's debate. They failed to clarify falsehoods, spouted misinformation, and put their own political aspirations ahead of the needs of young people in this country.

Vaccines were one of the many subjects batted around by the crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls in the second debate of primary season held on Wednesday night. Those candidates who took on this topic failed to clarify falsehoods, spouted misinformation, and put their own political aspirations ahead of the needs of young people in this country.

Moderator Jake Tapper began the discussion with a question aimed at Ben Carson: “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?”

It was an easy question with an easy answer. Carson should have said, “Yes, it’s inaccurate and, as such, dangerous to repeat. Trump should stop saying it.”

But Carson, who is indeed a brain surgeon, did not take that strong of a stance. At first, he said, although with less conviction than the statement warranted, “There has—there have been numerous studies, and they have not demonstrated that there is any correlation between vaccinations and autism.”

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Then he undercut that statement immediately by adding that the vaccine-autism connection “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.” And even worse: “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.” And, finally, despite the damage he’d already done, he added: “A lot of this is pushed by Big Government.”

Essentially, Dr. Carson took a topic that has a simple answer—”Vaccines have been proven not to cause autism”—and made it so murky that debate viewers might walk away thinking that there is something the public hasn’t been told about the link between autism and vaccines, that only some vaccines are lifesaving and therefore necessary, and that there’s been some sort of government conspiracy to push vaccines on unsuspecting parents and their children.

Donald Trump’s message was much clearer, though entirely inaccurate. He claimed, as he has in the past, that he knows someone who “just the other day” took a beautiful 2 or 2-and-a-half-year old to the doctor, the child got shot full of vaccines, spiked a terrible fever, and now has autism. Trump, who has no medical background, then explained that he is “in favor of vaccines,” he just thinks we bunch them together too much and they should be spaced out over a longer period of time. If we do this, Trump said, “I think you’re going to see a big impact on autism.”

Rand Paul—also a medical doctor—could have helped clarify the situation by explaining that there is no science to support the connection between vaccines and autism and that there is no science to support spacing vaccines over time. But he sat firmly on the fence instead, saying, “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 my vaccines out a little bit, at the very least.”

The deliberate confusion, misinformation, and sacrifice of science for politics is reminiscent of the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, when Michele Bachmann went after Rick Perry for his support of HPV vaccines and suggested they caused “mental retardation.” As Rewire did then, it appears to be time to play another round of “pointing out how the candidates are wrong about vaccines.”

First and foremost, there is no link between vaccines and autism. This should have been the beginning and end of the discussion. The false connection between these two unrelated issues started with a 1998 study in which British researcher Andrew Wakefield studied the records of about a dozen autism patients and concluded that the MMR shot—the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella—was the source of their problems. It was later revealed that Wakefield had fabricated his data, possibly for financial gain. He has been stripped of his medical license and his research has been retracted by the journal that published it.

Not surprisingly, all efforts to recreate his results have failed. Study after study has looked for this connection and concluded that it simply does not exist. The most recent of these, published in the Journal of the American Medical Associationexamined the records of 95,000 children with older siblings. Those whose siblings had been diagnosed with autism were considered at a high risk for getting that diagnosis themselves. As Rewire reported, researchers found that vaccination did not affect the rate of autism diagnosis, even in these higher-risk kids.

As for Trump’s claim that spacing vaccines out over time will lead to a reduction in the autism “epidemic”—it, too, is totally bogus. First, there is no autism epidemic. In fact, science shows that autism has existed at its current rate in the general public throughout our history. Changes in how we diagnose it and a willingness to talk about it are likely behind false assumptions that it is on the rise.

Second, logic tells us that if vaccines don’t cause autism, changing the timing of when they are given will have no impact. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, the schedule currently suggested for routine vaccinations is recommended for a reason:

Administering all needed vaccines at the recommended ages, even if it means giving multiple doses during the same visit, is important because it increases the likelihood that children will be fully immunized as recommended. Studies have shown that vaccines are as effective when administered simultaneously as they are individually and carry no greater risk for adverse side effects.

No one, however, is forced to vaccinate on this schedule, so long as children have had the vaccines required to attend school in their state by the time they reach kindergarten. Rand Paul’s rhetoric on parental freedom, therefore, was mere pandering.

Which brings us to Ben Carson’s insinuation that kids are given too many vaccines and some—those for diseases that don’t kill or maim—might be unnecessary. Either he was trying to appeal to those who think vaccinations are a moneymaking scam for pharmaceutical companies, or he has his facts wrong.

The list of potential outcomes of the diseases we vaccinate against—from measles and rubella to tetanus and pertussis—almost always ends with “death.” And those children who do not die may end up deaf (from mumps), with an intellectual disability (from measles), or paralyzed (from polio). Even the flu, which healthy adults sometimes think of as no big deal, can kill children. Fifteen children in nine states died of the flu in 2014.

If, by chance, Dr. Carson was talking about the HPV vaccine—which has been controversial and often dismissed as unnecessary because it protects against a sexually transmitted infection—he would do well to remember that HPV causes cervical cancer. About 4,000 women die from cervical cancer each year in this country.

Earlier this year, there was a measles outbreak on the West Coast that should serve to remind us how quickly these diseases can spread when too few people are vaccinated. One person with measles visited an amusement park in California in December and ultimately sickened more than 115 people in numerous states. The CDC notes that the majority of people who got measles were unvaccinated. In 2014, there were 23 outbreaks of measles—one occurred in unvaccinated Amish communities in Ohio and sickened 383 individuals.

Such outbreaks are absurd in a country that has the knowledge and resources to prevent diseases that killed so many children in the past. Vaccines represented a major step forward for science and medicine, but the rhetoric around them is a giant step back. Hearing this nonsense from a group of people who want to lead our country—people who could end up in charge of public health agencies like the CDC—is truly frightening.

It seems that the candidates can’t think beyond their immediate goal of winning the primary nod and, as such, are working really hard not to offend those misinformed parents who are skeptical of vaccines. There are many issues in which voters have legitimate differences of opinions—and candidates can knock themselves out trying to stay in the exact middle of the road on those. But there is no debate on vaccines and autism. There is just fact. The candidates should be ashamed of themselves for trying to pretend otherwise.