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Gov. Christie walks back call for 'balance' on required vaccinations

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Please don’t make vaccines a partisan issue

Scott Olson/Getty Images

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stumbled into a fight over vaccinations and the current measles outbreak when he called for "balance" between vaccination requirements and parental choice. While touring a medical facility in the UK, a reporter asked him whether Americans should vaccinate their children. After saying that he vaccinated his own, the likely Republican presidential candidate said that "parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide."

Criticism was swift, and Christie’s office soon sent out another statement: "The Governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated."

Christie’s comments came a day after President Obama appeared on NBC and called for parents to vaccinate their kids, and given that context, they have the appearance of the politicization of vaccination along partisan lines. That would be very bad.

The anti-vaccination movement has proven frustratingly difficult to stop, even when it deals exclusively in conspiracy and long-debunked studies. The source text for the movement is a retracted study by a disgraced British doctor purporting to show health risks associated with the measles vaccine, yet no number of studies debunking its claims have been able to change the minds of anti-vaxxers. The last thing the movement needs is the legitimacy of political debate and a call to hear both sides.

Though it might seem like an odd fit for a conservative politician — the current outbreak is traced to a trend among parents in wealthy, well-educated, and generally liberal areas of California — anti-vaxxers also frequently base their stance on religious ground or freedom from government meddling. One study shows that willingness to get vaccinated correlates with trust in government.

Christie himself has a history of courting anti-vaxxers. In a letter from Christie’s 2009 campaign for governor found by Olivia Nuzzi, Christie seems to acknowledge the retracted and debunked link between vaccines and autism.

The last thing the movement needs is the legitimacy of political debate and a call to hear both sides

As the early stages of the 2016 presidential race get underway, Christie has been trying to contrast himself with Obama on everything from ISIS to trade agreements. Notably, he imposed strict quarantines for doctors returning from Ebola-stricken countries, attacking the Obama administration’s response. When the quarantines were criticized for being overly strict and unnecessary, Christie defended them, citing public health. "My first and foremost obligation is to protect the public health and safety of the people of New Jersey," Christie said. "And so I’m sorry if in anyway she was inconvenienced, but the inconvenience that could occur from having folks who are symptomatic and ill out and amongst the public is a much, much greater concern of mine."

Right now, the easiest way to protect the public health and safety of the people of New Jersey is to make sure they get their shots. Among the unvaccinated, measles will infect 90 percent of people who are exposed — it’s a very contagious illness, far more so than Ebola. But it’s an avoidable one. It’s preventable with a simple vaccine — that’s how the United States eliminated the disease in 2000 and why scientists, health workers, and public officials have been unanimously pleading for parents to vaccinate their children.

Vaccination doesn't work unless almost everyone is vaccinated

The bright side is that publicly coming out against vaccinations is political and career suicide. Michele Bachmann was roundly attacked in 2011 for saying that HPV vaccines were dangerous. Even Jenny McCarthy, the closest thing anti-vaccination has to a public figure, has been desperately trying distance herself from the movement ever since her career began to spiral downward.

That said, there’s a lot of space for ambiguity and doublespeak between open support of anti-vaxxer claims and full-throated rejection. Calls for "balance" and to hear both sides obscure the fact that the science is settled: the vaccine is safe and effective. Worse, they give the impression that this is a debate about personal choice and government power, a framing that has the potential to trigger partisan commitments. There are areas where those debates make sense, where the data isn’t as clean-cut. Vaccination isn’t one of them. They don’t work unless almost everyone is vaccinated. It’s not just about making a choice for your kid, as fraught as that decision already is; it’s about making a choice for everyone else’s kid who’s too young or ill to get the vaccine.

UPDATE: Another potential Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), says that most vaccines should be "voluntary." Speaking on the Laura Ingraham show today, Paul said, “I’m not anti-vaccine at all,” but “I think that’s a personal decision.”