Brian Snyder / Reuters

Vaccine debate jabs GOP presidential hopefuls

GOP presidential hopefuls Rand Paul, a doctor, and Chris Christie, say parents should have choice on vaccinating kids

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, an eye doctor, said in a Monday radio interview that parents should have some input on vaccines for their children because "I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines."

His remarks came after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said parents should have some choice on whether to vaccinate their children, a position he's taken before but one that drew a new level of attention due because he, like Rand, has made moves toward running for president in 2016.

Staff members for both men quickly clarified what their bosses meant even as a measles outbreak in California has sickened more than 100 people in several states and Mexico, putting a new spotlight on parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. Some do so for religious or philosophical reasons, while others cite a concern that vaccines can lead to autism and developmental disorders — a link debunked by rigorous medical research.

Christie's office released a statement saying the governor believes "with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated."

Paul’s staff sent out a statement, saying that Paul "believes that vaccines have saved lives, and should be administered to children. His children were all vaccinated."

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading Democratic contender for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016, sent out a Tweet: "The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let's protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest."

Christie entered the vaccine debate Monday in response to a question asked about the U.S. measles outbreak after touring a facility operated by MedImmune, which manufacturers the flu vaccine FluMist. Christie is on a three-day trip to the United Kingdom.

He said that he and his wife had vaccinated their children, describing that decision as "the best expression I can give you of my opinion." He said they believe doing so is an "important part of making sure we protect their health and the public health."

"But," Christie added, "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."

Christie found an ally in Paul, an eye doctor, who said in a Monday radio interview on CNBC that most vaccines should be voluntary.

“I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines,” he said. “I’m not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they are 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 and public health.”

Amid the politicians' comments, the American Academy of Pediatrics affirmed Monday the importance of vaccines along with their relatively low risk of harm. In a statement, the group stressed that the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella is one of the safest and most effective vaccines given, and strongly urged parents to stick to the vaccine schedule recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Concerns about autism and vaccinations are often traced to a 1998 study in the British journal Lancet. While the research was later discredited and retracted by the journal, legions of parents abandoned the vaccine, leading to a resurgence of measles in Western countries where it had been mostly stamped out. 

President Barack Obama, asked about the outbreak this weekend, said in an interview with NBC News that all parents should get their kids vaccinated. Those children who are not, he said, put infants and those who can't get vaccinations at risk.

"I understand that there are families that, in some cases, are concerned about the effect of vaccinations," Obama said. "The science is, you know, pretty indisputable."

Measles is a highly contagious disease that spreads through the air, with symptoms that include fever, runny nose and a blotchy rash. The measles-mumps-rubella vaccine is 97 percent effective at preventing measles, according to the CDC.

Wire services

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter