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Saturday, December 10, 2016

The recent measles outbreak that has stricken more than 100 people in 14 states over the past month has thrust vaccination into the news. Measles was virtually eradicated in the U.S. 15 years ago, but the highly infectious disease has made a rapid comeback with the help of a growing number of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children.

To be clear, that is a dangerous, horrible idea. The widespread fear that vaccines can cause autism has been thoroughly debunked, as have the rest of the common arguments against vaccination. Refusing to vaccinate children puts them and their entire communities at risk.

Unfortunately, several prominent Republicans haven’t gotten this message

On Monday morning, New Jersey governor Chris Christie weighed in on the controversy — and appeared to side with those peddling junk science.

“Mary Pat and I have had our children vaccinated and we think that it’s an important part of being sure we protect their health and the public health,” Christie told reporters in Cambridge, England, where he is on a trade mission. “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’s comments quickly sparked bipartisan outrage.

“Vaccination is one of the most consequential scientific and medical advances in the history of mankind,” Republican strategist Rick Wilson tweeted. “I’m as libertarian as it comes, but the social contract includes not letting your kids die of preventable diseases or spread them to others.”

“Chris Christie isn’t a scientist. He isn’t a doctor. And he sure as heck isn’t a leader. If his campaign is going to be about kissing up to the radical, conspiracy theory base that’s wagging the dog of today’s Republican Party, that’s up to him and his cracker-jack team,” Democratic National Committee communications director Mo Elleithee said in a blistering statement. “He ought to take his own advice – sit down and shut up, before people actually get hurt.”

It didn’t take long for the heat to get to Christie; later Monday morning, he walked back his comments through a spokesman.

“The governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “At the same time different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which ones government should mandate.”

But even if Christie is no longer seeking “balance” in the debate, vaccine trutherism still has a home in the presidential campaign. During a Monday morning appearance on Laura Ingraham’s radio show, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) — a self-certified ophthalmologist — picked up Christie’s discarded argument.

“I’m not anti-vaccine at all,” he told Ingraham, “but most of them ought to be voluntary.”

And it doesn’t stop there. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina isn’t likely to win the presidential election, but she is likely to run — and she also thinks that parents should be allowed to withhold vaccines from their children.

“I think vaccinating for measles makes a lot of sense. But that’s me,” she told BuzzFeed News a week ago. “I do think parents have to make those choices.”

Perhaps this outbreak of trutherism should not be surprising. After all, the Republican Party has been frighteningly clear about its institutional hostility towards science. And there is a precedent for anti-vaccine hysteria in presidential campaigns. But it’s still startling to see those who want to lead the nation peddling dangerous conspiracy theories.

And it’s not limited to vaccines. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) believes that the United Nations wants to take over American golf courses. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee thinks that President Obama was secretly raised in Kenya. Dr. Ben Carson fears that the Affordable Care Act is a slavery plot. For the GOP’s 2016 presidential hopefuls, pandering to the fringe is a feature, not a bug.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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