First, there was Ebola, and now there's measles. Two alarming outbreaks in recent months have shown New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at odds with public health experts.
A day after President Obama in a televised interview urged parents to get their kids vaccinated on the basis of "indisputable" science, Christie said parents should have "some measure of choice" about immunizing their children from measles and other viruses and diseases.
"There has to be a balance and it depends on what the vaccine is, what the disease type is, and all the rest," Christie said in an interview Monday morning in England. "Not every vaccine is created equal and not every disease type is as great a public threat as others."
That's not exactly a resounding endorsement for vaccines, which scientific evidence continues to show are safe and effective — and necessary for protecting a community's health.
The reaction to Christie's remarks, in the midst of a major measles outbreak, drew plenty of criticism early Monday morning. The likely 2016 presidential candidate's office soon issued a statement clarifying his remarks. Christie's office said there's no doubt that children should be vaccinated for a "disease like measles" — but at the same time, each state has differing vaccination requirements, "which is why he calling for balance in which ones the government should mandate."
This isn't the first time Christie's vaccine comments were at odds with public health experts. In 2009, as a first-time candidate for governor, he gave credence to the widely discredited theory linking vaccines to autism. In a letter to Life Health Choices, a group supporting "parental choice" in vaccinations, Christie wrote that he "stands with" parents who fear vaccines are driving up autism rates. He wrote to the group:
"I have met with families affected by autism from across the state and have been struck by their incredible grace and courage. Many of these families have expressed their concern over New Jersey's highest-in-the nation vaccine mandates. I stand with them now, and will stand with them as their governor in their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children."
Christie also crossed public health experts last fall when he required New Jersey health-care workers returning from Africa to be quarantined for three weeks—a policy that was much tougher than the White House's response and flew in the face of medical recommendations. Experts said Christie's policy ignored the science of how Ebola is spread and could make it tougher to send health-care workers to fight the outbreak at its source in West Africa, thus putting Americans at greater danger.
That policy earned approval from New Jersey residents who approved his handling of the crisis 53 percent to 27 percent, according to a poll.
But the politics of vaccines could be dicier for Christie. As my colleague Aaron Blake notes, a Pew Research Center study released just last week shows 30 percent of Americans say that vaccines should be a matter of parental choice, while 68 percent say the vaccines should be required (the scientific community offers much stronger support for mandatory vaccines).
Politicians have struggled with how to address the question of vaccinations before. Although President Obama now appears to stand firmly behind the science showing that parents should definitely vaccinate their children, he and John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign said the science on vaccines and autism was inconclusive.
Unlike 2008, though, the ongoing measles outbreak is drawing widespread national outrage. And it's arguably become a bigger health threat to Americans than Ebola, which has been easily contained in the United States. Which is why Christie—and any other presidential hopefuls—may think twice before speaking on it again.
It may be too late for Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard who's considering a 2016 presidential run. BuzzFeed on Monday published an interview she did with the news outlet a week ago, in which she was asked whether children should be vaccinated. “I think parents have to make choices for their family and their children," said Fiorina.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly described the current measles outbreak as the worst in 20 years.