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Thursday, December 8, 2016

It’s not too early for defining moments in the 2016 presidential race, and we just had one. Amid a worrying measles outbreak, at least three potential candidates have failed the test posed by the Great Vaccine Debate.

Initial comments by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Kentucky senator Rand Paul and former Silicon Valley tech executive Carly Fiorina, all Republicans, suggested they were less interested in protecting public health than in indulging a few parents who think they know more than scientists. The way Christie and Paul have backpedaled tells us even more about them and why their White House quests are problematic.

Paul’s Waterloo came during a contentious interview with CNBC host Kelly Evans. He’s an ophthalmologist who knows full well the value of vaccines, but holding to his libertarian ideology, he would not require them. “The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom,” Paul said. He also perpetuated an idea that scientists have repeatedly found to be false: “I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.”

Especially for a doctor, these were astonishing comments. Even more astonishing was Paul’s attempt the next day to deny he meant anything by them. “I did not say vaccines caused disorders, just that they were temporally related,” Paul said. He also invited a reporter to accompany him to get a booster shot then tweeted a photo of the procedure: “Ironic: Today I am getting my booster vaccine. Wonder how the liberal media will misreport this?” What misreporting? Paul said what he said, and it was jarring.

Christie was visiting London when he was asked about vaccines, so he may have been jarred by the context. He started off responsibly by saying he and his wife think vaccinations are “an important part of being sure we protect their health and the public health.” But he kicked off a ruckus — and a round of backpedaling by his office back home — when he added that “parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.” Was that a pander to conservative primary voters by a moderate blue-state governor? In any case, it boomeranged — and Christie’s next moves were as revealing as Paul’s. He canceled media availabilities and refused to take ad hoc questions.

Like Christie the moderate and Paul the physician, Fiorina — the former CEO of tech giant Hewlett-Packard — might have been expected to go with the science. But in an interview with BuzzFeed, she emphasized parental choice instead. She said she could understand why parents might think twice about vaccinating a preteen girl for cervical cancer. But she also said parents should be able to decide against measles vaccines despite “mountains of evidence” in their favor. “I think vaccinating for measles makes a lot of sense. But that’s me. I do think parents have to make those choices,” she said.

Fiorina is a cancer survivor who could have been placed at risk by unvaccinated people with contagious diseases. On the other hand, she is thinking of competing for conservative and libertarian voters in GOP primaries. And maybe she knows a lot of affluent Californians who lump vaccines with chemicals and reject them both in a misguided quest to keep their kids “pure.”

So who did this right? Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA) offered strong support of vaccines and state and school requirements for them. So did Republican Ben Carson. He is a social and religious conservative, but he is also a retired neurosurgeon who chairs the board of Vaccinogen, a company working on a vaccine for colon cancer. He said people should not be allowed to skip vaccines “for philosophical, religious or other reasons.”

Democrat Hillary Clinton was also a winner. “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest,” she tweeted late the day the debate broke out. One wonders how many people worked to craft this masterful tweet, and for how long. It puts Clinton squarely on the side of science, kids and grandmothers, and gives her a hashtag she can use to organize women of a certain age — hers — around a pioneering candidacy. If she runs, of course.

All kidding aside, these are deadly serious issues. Parents who reject vaccines not only put their own children at risk, they endanger those who can’t be vaccinated, including pregnant women, infants under 1 year old, and people with weak or compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients. The measles cases springing up across the country are alarming, but they have also been clarifying. It is helpful to know which presidential prospects put science and public health above personal “choice,” and don’t need a backlash to get their priorities straight.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr