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Science Of Vaccines Is Settled — But Politics Are More Complicated


The national conversation about vaccines and whether parents should be required to vaccinate their children has migrated from playgrounds and Facebook pages to the corridors of power. And although the science is settled, the politics are more perilous. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It can be messy when science and politics collide. Just ask New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who earlier this week was asked by an MSNBC reporter whether Americans should vaccinate their kids and whether the measles vaccine is safe.


GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: Well, all I can say is that I - we vaccinate ours.

KEITH: Then the Republican governor went on to say something that has been roundly criticized.


CHRISTIE: But 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.

KEITH: Christie is considering a presidential bid, so what he says gets magnified. His office later clarified, saying, Christie believes vaccines are an important public health protection and kids should be vaccinated. But his initial remarks sparked questions about whether he was threading a political needle, trying not to alienate those potential voters who feel they shouldn't be required to vaccinate their children. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, another potential GOP presidential candidate, took it further. On CNBC yesterday he said vaccination should be voluntary.


SENATOR RAND PAUL: I'm not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they're a good thing, but I think the parent should have some input. The state doesn't own your children. Parents own the children and it is an issue of freedom.

KEITH: Paul, who is an ophthalmologist by training, said he has vaccinated his own children but on a modified schedule. And then he seemingly alluded to a now-disproven theory that vaccines can cause autism.


PAUL: I've heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.

KEITH: In 2010 the article the autism theory was built on was retracted by the medical journal that published it. Apparently responding to the growing political flap, Hillary Clinton tweeted last night, quote, "the science is clear: the earth is round, the sky is blue and vaccines work. Let's protect our kids." But in 2008 when there were growing concerns about the study's methodology, candidate Clinton wasn't so certain. She responded to a questionnaire saying she would invest in autism research, including possible environmental causes like vaccines. Then-candidate Barack Obama was similarly cautious when responding to a question about vaccines and autism in 2008.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.

KEITH: He went on to praise vaccination and the lives it saves. When asked about vaccines on the "Today" show this week, the president was firm.


OBAMA: The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. We've looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated.

KEITH: But don't get the idea that this is purely partisan. Ben Carson is a Republican mulling a presidential bid. He is also a retired pediatric neurosurgeon and says being pro-vaccination, which he is, does not mean that you're for the government taking over people's lives.

BEN CARSON: This is a situation where we're dealing with public health and public safety and we're all in the same boat. And that's a very different type of situation than one where your personal choice affects only you.

KEITH: Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who may also run for president, both chimed in today saying, yes, children should be vaccinated. Oh, and by the way - late today, Senator Rand Paul tweeted a picture of himself in the Capitol physician's office getting a hepatitis A vaccine. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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