As public health officials estimate the ongoing measles epidemic which started at Disneyland has now spread to more than 100 people, President Barack Obama delivered strong words to the growing population of Americans who refuse to vaccinate their children.
"The science is, you know, pretty indisputable," Obama said during a sit-down interview with NBC News' Savannah Guthrie on Sunday. "We've looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren't reasons to not."
The response wasn't just directed at the public. Despite the fact that Obama hasn't always taken such a hard line on "anti-vaxxers," this has become a carefully measured response designed to provide political cover for what's quickly becoming the national controversy of the week. While Vox's Andrew Prokop notes that many politicians and commentators have resisted the urge to exploit the moment for political gain and instead frame the debate around public health, both Republicans and Democrats have weighed in on the issue of vaccinations in the U.S. since measles, once exterminated by health officials in 2000, reared its head in December. The Obama administration has been joined by some Republicans like Dr. Ben Carson, who described strict vaccination policies as a no-brainer and emphasized that vaccines are a matter of public safety, not government overreach.
But a minority of Republicans, led by likely 2016 hopefuls Sen. Rand Paul and Gov. Chris Christie, have chosen to respond to the Disneyland outbreak by framing it as a battle between big government and parents who just want to do well by their children. Even likely 2016 Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton weighed in with a sarcastic tweet proclaiming that "[t]he earth is round, the sky is blue and #vaccineswork."
This public jousting over vaccines is potentially more damaging than anti-vaxxers themselves. Support for vaccines has been bipartisan for years, but every highly visible politician that weighs in on the vaccine "debate" risks politicizing what's objectively a public health issue — a risk that could not only make the work of epidemiologists and doctors more difficult, but risk inflaming and entrenching the anti-vaccination crowd more than any two-bit celebrity talking head or sensationalist headline ever could.
Vaccines have never been a significantly partisan issues: It's worth noting that by 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Food and Drug Administration had already taken firm stances against the autism-vaccine link. The FDA had been saying so for nearly a decade: The "fraudulent" study conducted by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that launched the modern vaccines-cause-autism meme was partially retracted in 2004, and Wakefield's medical license was revoked.
And believe it or not, that science stuck. According to a Pew Research Center poll, Republican and Democratic views on whether children should be vaccinated were essentially the same just five years ago: In 2009, 71% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats supports vaccinations. As of 2014, the changes have been marginal at best: There's been a slight uptick in support for vaccines on the Democratic side, and a slight decline on the Republican side, but as Vox notes, "support for vaccination remains by far the most common opinion in both parties."
There is, of course, some level of correlation between thoughts on vaccines and political philosophy. According to recent research from Ohio State University, people who trust the government more are significantly more likely to get certain vaccines, while those with less faith in the country's institutions and figures of authority are less likely to do so. But as the Atlantic's David Graham notes, there aren't any clear partisan molds for anti-vaccination proponents. Despite the fact that anti-vaxxers are sometimes portrayed as "oddball hippie types," a January 2014 paper by Harvard and Yale researchers "found little correlation between left-right politics and vaccine skepticism."
In this sense, there's basically no excuse for any politician to not be explicitly clear that vaccines don't cause autism. While same-sex marriage and abortion may be social issues that politicians can prey on to shore up their bona fides with their respective bases, vaccinations are not one of those issues.
Politicians are making this a partisan issue — and that's a problem. Despite the fact that both science and polling paint a fairly clear picture of how Americans think about vaccines, major political figures have become more wary of the anti-vaccine movement's growing power in recent years. Back when he was a senator running for president in 2008, Obama (albeit rather sarcastically) described the science linking autism to vaccines as "inconclusive." His opponent, Arizona Republican John McCain, argued that there was "strong evidence that indicates that [autism's] got to do with a preservative in vaccines" and advocating more research. Even Clinton, then a contender for the White House, promised an autism group that she would fund research investigating the autism-vaccine link around the same time.
Hedging on vaccines is an understandable political instinct — after all, no one wants to get into a spat with a large group of confused, angry parents, or be labeled as a government stooge who wants to tell American parents how to raise their kids — and it's a bit too late to do anything about this unfortunate lack of foresight about what was then a fringe issue. But now that anti-vaxxers are becoming a clear threat to public health, the tepid desire to pretend otherwise for the sake of pandering to a base is giving way to rapid polarization.
Part of this is psychological: According to a December study in the journal Vaccine, efforts to educate the public can often entrench anti-vaccine paranoia despite a preponderance of science. The study found that when people concerned about side effects of the flu shot learned that it couldn't cause the flu, they actually became less willing to get a vaccine. As study co-author Brendan Nyhan, a professor at Dartmouth College, told the Atlantic, "Vaccines aren't a partisan or ideological issue, but they're controversial ... They bring up issues of identity and tribalism that feel a lot like politics. I have kids, and talking about vaccines on the playground is like bringing up religion. It's very weird and delicate and controversial."
Why it matters: The moment anti-vaccine conspiracy theories become a political debate over personal freedoms and the limits of government rather than scientific evidence and empirical questions about public health is the moment vaccine skepticism becomes an unkillable political monster. Since studies have found the underlying driver of anti-vaccine viewpoints tends to be a "conspiratorial mindset" rather than any particular political position, it's crucial that politicians emphasize that the debate is not worth retreading in the first place.
"It's a Catch-22 for public health officials," writes the Atlantic's Graham. "They can't sit idly by while vaccination numbers plunge and mostly vanquished diseases make a comeback, but anything they do to encourage vaccinations may instead encourage the opposite. One thing health officials could do without is politicians making their work harder."
Politicians need to ensure that anti-vaxxers gain no further political footholds, and since polling has shown that young people may be more susceptible to autism-vaccine nonsense than previous generations, that work needs to start right now.
Republicans trying to exploit the nonexistent vaccine-autism link need to be shut down hard by their own colleagues — and fortunately, they already seem to be backpedaling. But Democrats would do just as well to refuse to take the bait. With the number of measles cases growing by the day, America can't afford for the phony political "debate" over vaccines to become just another battle fought along ideological lines.