Anti-Vaccine Paranoia Infects The Republican Race For President

There was far too much pseudoscience in evidence during the Republican Debate on Wednesday.


One moment from Wednesday’s Republican debate that is raising concerns in many circles, including most especially the medical profession, came when the candidates were asked their opinion about childhood vaccinations:

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie suggested seven months ago, at the height of the Disneyland measles outbreak, that parents should have “a measure of choice” about whether to vaccinate their children, he was widely condemned — and quickly reversed himself.

On Wednesday, two GOP presidential candidates who are both medical doctors, Ben Carson and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), waded into similar territory. This time, the fury rained down from a medical establishment that felt betrayed by its own.

While personal liberty is an important value, “it’s well-established in our society that we don’t allow you to do things that put others at risk,” said infectious disease specialist Mark Sawyer of the University of California at San Diego. “That’s where we draw the line.”

The notions that vaccines are linked to autism, or should be given in small doses over longer periods of time — both scientifically discredited — appear to be seeping into the Republican mainstream, potentially undermining a long consensus around the role of government in protecting populations from disease.

For decades, only those on the fringes opposed vaccination, citing reasons such as a contamination of the body, government mind control and, more recently, concerns about autism. The vast majority in both political parties saw campaigns to widely vaccinate children as healthy and wholesome as mother’s milk.

Now, though, a significant portion of GOP voters are skeptical. An April CBS poll found that only 59 percent of Republican voters thought parents should be legally required to vaccinate their kids. Among Democrats, the percentage was 75 percent.

“We’re at a low point of trust in government, especially among Republicans,” said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard. “I can’t imagine a politician like John Kasich doesn’t believe in mandatory vaccination, but because of that anti-government feeling, they aren’t going to leap at a debate and defend it.”

To a large degree, of course, the question regarding vaccinations came up largely because Donald Trump is in the race. In the past, Trump has claimed that there is some kind of connection between childhood vaccinations and autism and other childhood disorders. He repeated that claim in the debate, where he said, without any indication that he had any medical evidence to back him up this, that the recommend vaccination schedule means that children dosages for many vaccines in a short period time was somehow linked to instances of autism. The reality, of course, is that there is no evidence at all linking childhood vaccinations and autism. The original report that was published in the British medical journal Lancet in 1998 and written by Andrew Wakefield was thoroughly discredited to the point where Lancet formally retracted the paper in 2010. A year after that retraction, a study was released that determined that the results purporting to support Wakefield’s claims were utterly fraudulent. More recently, a new study has concluded as definitively as possible that there is no causal link at all between autism and childhood vaccinations.

Despite the fact that it was definitively discredited, that Wakefield study has done real damage to public health efforts to encourage vaccination against common childhood illnesses. Thanks in no small part to websites of dubious around the Internet and ill-informed celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, parents have been choosing to skip routine vaccinations based on unfounded fears that their children will be endangered. The result of that is that diseases once thought to have been largely under control if not eradication for all practical purposes, such as Measles and Whopping Cough, have made a return in numbers unseen for more than two decades. The paranoia about vaccines has also infected the political process, with candidates such as s Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump, and even a medical doctor like Rand Paul, making claims about links between vaccination and autism that simply aren’t supported by the facts.

When vaccination came up in the debate on Wednesday, though, there was at least some expectation that the paranoia would receive a thorough rebuke since there were two doctors on the stage. However, that didn’t really happen:

Many viewers expected a ringing endorsement for vaccines when CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Ben Carson — a retired pediatric neurosurgeon — what he thought of Donald Trump’s claim that vaccines cause autism.

Carson disputed the autism link, but then pulled back and offered what doctors considered a confusing and misleading equivocation.

“Certain ones” are important, he said. “There are others, there are a multitude which probably don’t fit in that category. … A lot of this is pushed by Big Government, and I think that’s one of the things that people so vehemently want to get rid of, Big Government.”

A University of Michigan physician who studied under Carson in the late 1980s expressed dismay. “Trump is a buffoon but I respect Dr. Carson, and he should know better,” said Howard Markel. “You take the Hippocratic Oath, which is to first do no harm.”

Trump, meanwhile, insisted children were over-vaccinated — “you take this little beautiful baby, and you pump — I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child.”

Carson agreed: “It is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time.”

He went on to say that pediatricians were “cutting down on the number and the proximity in which those are done, and I think that’s appropriate.”

That statement is false, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Doctors are not changing vaccine schedules because “delaying vaccines only leaves a child at risk of disease for a longer period,” said Karen Remley, the group’s executive director. “It does nothing to make vaccines safer.”

Rand Paul, for his part, praised smallpox vaccinations, which eradicated that disease in the 1970s. He claimed — falsely — that smallpox vaccination was “all done voluntary.”

“So I’m all for vaccines,” he said. “But I’m also for freedom.”

“When they talk about ‘freedom’ they should finish the sentence,” responded pediatrician Paul Offit of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “They mean freedom to allow their children to catch and transmit a fatal infection.”

In response to queries Thursday from POLITICO, the Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) campaigns both issued endorsements of mandatory childhood immunization. None of the other candidates responded.

In a piece at The Washington Post Eric Merkley and Dominik Stecula lament the fact that this issue came up in the Republican debate at all, and Kevin Drum‘s about the consequence if what is presently still a widespread public consensus in favor of childhood vaccination. These are valid points, and it would be very unfortunate if the efficacy and appropriateness of vaccination became a right v. left political issue, not the least because of the threat that could pose to public health. At the same time, though, I don’t think you can blame the political media for the fact that paranoid ideas about vaccination continue to be widespread in the public. To a large degree, those ideas play on a parent’s natural instinct to protect their children, and the fact that unvetted “scientific” information is easily available on the Internet to the point where someone can convince of something that is quite obviously not true quite easily. Combine that with the anti-government sentiment that is a strong force on the right, and it’s not surprising that some politicians in the Republican Party, although thankfully not all, would embrace discredited scientific theories to support the idea that parents should be free to leave their children unvaccinated.

The opinions that these politicians, like Donald Trump, express on an issue like vaccination is also a good guide into determination how they think about other things and how they approach the world. The arguments in favor of vaccination are so strong as to be nearly irrefutable. Even though it is the case that there is some risk from vaccines, that risk is far outweighed by the costs that would incurred if we didn’t vaccinate against these diseases. The fact that a politician would reject public health science that goes back more than a century now in order to pander to some small wing of their political party is an indication that either the politician in question is ignorant about science and unwilling to learn, or that they just choose to ignored. Whichever the case is, it ought to a disqualifying position. The fact that too many people on the stage Wednesday night decided to pander rather than stand up for science seem to me to be an indication of just how bad the Republican Presidential field actually is this election cycle.

Update: Tara Haelle at Forbes has a particularly good rejoinder for Drs. Paul and Carson and the comments they made about vaccinations at the debate.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Health, Healthcare Policy, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. NW-Steve says:

    Pseudoscience, or perhaps anti-science, is now a core element of of the Republican platform, is it not?


    An actual scientist

  2. al-Ameda says:

    Up in the area where I live there are plenty of funky liberal families who have bought into the vaccination paranoia, as a consequence maladies like Whooping Cough, Measles and so forth are making a very unwelcome comeback.

    I suppose it was only a matter of time, inevitable, before Republicans waded into this particular area of junk science and paranoia. When you’re as anti-government and faux-concerned about privacy as most base Republicans are, it’s a short quick journey to Jenny-McCarthy’s “Vaccines Cause Autism” Land.

  3. grumpy realist says:

    And then the Republican Party wrings its hands and can’t figure out why Asian-Americans are fleeing them like they were a pit of plague.

    It’s because of things like this, you dumbasses.

  4. Pete S says:

    This is really spectacular in the way, for the Republicans to grab onto what his been a bipartisan bit of idiocy and try to make it their own. The only problem is if they are successful we can look forward to 30% of the party not getting Vaccines. That is enough to cause some general health problems.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    This is why letting bullshit go unchallenged is not a good idea. Conservatives who believe Texas is being invaded by federal troops, and Liberals believing that kale has magical properties (or that it’s edible), easily move on to believing that vaccines – one of the greatest advances in the history of medicine, savior of millions of lives – are dangerous.

  6. KM says:

    To a large degree, those ideas play on a parent’s natural instinct to protect their children, and the fact that unvetted “scientific” information is easily available on the Internet to the point where someone can convince of something that is quite obviously not true quite easily.

    And you know what? That’s our fault – doctors, nurses, scientists, pharmacologists, anyone who’s taken the time to learn about medicine and biology, anyone who hasn’t spoken up with someone repeats this crap. If we are silent then the air is filled with nonsense. There needs to be a serious public health campaign – complete with gruesome pictures and videos of what a child dying of a preventable disease. What the video of kids in iron lungs, see them struggle to walk with polio, listen to a child with whooping cough struggle to breathe. Look at the anti-smoking campaigns: once they started showing the insides of cancerous lungs, it got real for people in a way the warning label never did. Teach them about mutation; by leaving a swath of the population unprotected and available to serve as incubators, nature will come up with the next killer we can’t defend against.

    We can’t just complain about ignorance. We have to really put some effort into stamping this nonsense out. The money spent will be worth it since it will save lives and won’t add stress to the healthcare system.

  7. KM says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Beat me to it!

    Not just kale – acai berries or the latest miracle food. Food is medicine, true, in the same way food is chemicals. Humanity spent centuries concentrating it for a reason before capitalism was even a thing. Although I’ve found if I put enough garlic and green curry on kale, it’s passable.

  8. “You take the Hippocratic Oath, which is to first do no harm.”

    Just a pet peeve of mine here:

    1. Doctors haven’t actually taken the Hippocratic Oath in a long time. Which is good, because it bans things like surgery.

    2. The phrase “first do no harm” isn’t from the Hippocratic Oath anyways, it was from an influential 19th century medical textbook.

  9. Franklin says:

    @michael reynolds: Prepared the right way, even my kids will eat kale (sauteed in olive oil and salt). But I draw the line at those kale chips.

  10. Modulo Myself says:


    Kale chips and kale juice are both objectively terrible but science says that Tuscan kale is excellent.

  11. C. Clavin says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Kale…right? WTF is with kale? And then they burn it and call it kale-chips. Enough with the kale.

  12. ernieyeball says:

    @michael reynolds:..This is why letting bullshit go unchallenged is not a good idea.

    It is never-ending. Years ago in my hippie days I tried to convince others that Astrology is pure hokum and bunk. Then it was the chemical free “natural” food craze. Today Homeopathy is all the rage among “enlightened, spiritual” folk. Invisible angels are everywhere!
    Healing crystals. Baseless claims that cell phones cause cancer.
    Now it is the Anti vaccine crowd.
    Maybe we should call him Typhoid Trump.

    He bad production
    He got walrus gumboot
    He got Ono sideboard
    He one spinal cracker
    He got feet down below his knees
    Hold you in his armchair
    You can feel his disease

  13. C. Clavin says:

    If you insist on being the Party of Stupid…then…ipso facto…you are going to be stupid.
    Reagan and his delusional nonsense set Republicans on course for a slow inexorable death spiral. It’s hard to tell but I think this Presidential field marks the near terminus of the process. They can’t get any more stupid can they? Of course I didn’t watch the debate…why in the fwck would anyone??? But from all accounts it was three hours of mis-information and mendacity, false assertions and fantasy.
    Vaccines are but one issue in a litany.

  14. Slugger says:

    Big government is bad; pestilence is good. If elected I promise to return our country to the golden days of our founding fathers. Release the smallpox! And the Great Pox, too.

  15. Kylopod says:

    The amazing thing is how quickly it has gone from left-wing crackpottery to practically becoming right-wing orthodoxy. When Michelle Bachmann in 2011 made her remark about vaccines causing mental retardation (which on top of things indicated she didn’t know the difference between autism and retardation–by her lights, Temple Grandin is retarded), Rush Limbaugh declared that she had “jumped the shark,” and her poll numbers plummeted. But now you have practically the entire party jumping on the anti-vax bandwagon, either endorsing it outright or making nods to it. It’s like they decided their motto had to be “I never met a loony idea I never liked.”

  16. ernieyeball says:

    Here’s my recipe for Kale and Cream…

  17. Mu says:

    Doesn’t translate well, but one of my favorite German sayings to describe situations like this was “I can’t eat as much as I want to throw up”. When the anti-vaccine trend took hold in the liberal circles it at least seemed to be an “affluent” affliction, and you could assume that the kids would still get decent medical care when they get sick. If it now becomes trendy in your NASCAR crowd the biggest danger to a trailer park might no longer be a tornado.

  18. Grumpy Realist says:

    @Franklin: I’ve found it quite palatable chopped up in a salad with a lot of fresh tomatoes, dashi, vinegar, and sesame seeds.

    Kale chips are far too much of a bother to make for me to deal with.
    And there’s nothing you can do with kale ribs. Inedible. I’ve given up on them.

  19. Pinky says:

    It doesn’t surprise me at all that Trump or Paul would say something screwy about vaccines. They’re both nutters. The unexpected comments were from Carson. Actually, if you look at what he said, most of it was clear and correct. But it’s like he was trying so hard to be non-confrontational during the debate that he felt like he had to soften it.

  20. steve says:

    “That’s our fault – doctors, nurses, scientists, pharmacologists, anyone who’s taken the time to learn about medicine and biology, anyone who hasn’t spoken up with someone repeats this crap. ”

    I wish that were true, but it isn’t, for the most part. What we now know is that when people believe stuff like this, confronting them with the actual data and science proving they are wrong just drives them to dig in deeper. Speaking, educating them, whatever, just doesn’t work. You should also know that many of those who have spoken out publicly have received death threats over it.

    al-Ameda- Go look at vaccination rates by county in California. Then look at the political leanings of those counties. The counties with the lowest rates of vaccinations nearly all vote red. Which is not to say that there are not plenty of whacky liberals who oppose vaccinations, just that there is a perception that anti-vaxxers are largely hippies when it is really also common, and probably more so, on the right.


  21. Tony W says:


    The unexpected comments were from Carson.

    He’s an actual doctor. That makes him 100x worse

  22. michael reynolds says:


    I just came across some charts and let me just say the situation would be a whole lot worse without Head Start. They are outperforming public schools which are in turn outperforming private school. So better at the bottom of the economic ladder, worse at the top.

    It goes nicely with research showing that wealthy people are less likely to have a strong moral foundation, that they cheat and lie. They figure they can afford the medical bills so screw herd immunity. I expect this kind of swinishness on the right, so it bothers me more that it’s coming from the school right at the bottom of my hill, too, which I do not take to be a Republican stronghold.

  23. Grewgills says:

    Here it’s chia. When I was a kid the only thing people used chia seeds for was to make crappy green afros on clay heads.

  24. Modulo Myself says:


    Chia chocolate pudding is fantastic. I have vegan friends who make this and it’s great.

    Vegan cheese, on the other hand, is the worst thing known to mankind. I love all sorts of meat products–terrines, tripe, steak tartare, pates–but can enjoy fake meat. Daiya is an atrocity.

  25. DrDaveT says:

    @Tony W:

    He’s an actual doctor. That makes him 100x worse

    Yes, it does.

    And you know what, you alleged party of moral values? This is not a science issue; it’s a morality and ethics issue. For a physician who knows better to deliberately avoid making the unambiguous statement about the (lack of) relationship between vaccines and autism is contemptible, cowardly, venal, and tantamount to deliberately infecting children himself. There is no possible ethical justification for his actions.

  26. ernieyeball says:

    @DrDaveT:..tantamount to deliberately infecting children himself.

    Typhoid Ben

  27. grumpy realist says:

    @Tony W: He’s a YEC. He’s well-practiced in being totally loony.

  28. Pinky says:

    @DrDaveT: He did deliberately make an unambiguous statement about the lack of connection between vaccines and autism. It was as clear a statement as I’ve ever heard. Then he said something that undermined it. That’s what’s so confusing.

  29. Tony W says:

    @Pinky: There’s nothing confusing about it. You can’t win an election in the Republican primaries if you acknowledge actual facts.

    You have to use whatever made up data and fake information that lets the base feel superior to somebody else. Doesn’t matter who they choose – racial minorities, smart people (scientists, teachers, ‘nerds’), immigrants, welfare recipients, foreigners, etc. If a doctor presents himself as a smart guy, he’ll lose immediately because the base does not like people who they perceive as smarter than them – and certainly not an uppity black guy like Obama.

    I’ve said it before, they are playing with fire.

  30. Ron Beasley says:

    Most of these candidates don’t believe 3/4 of the false and ridiculous things they say but are pandering to the ignorant and superstitious base. Starting with Lee Atwater the Republicans created this base and so it will only be appropriate when it leads to their extinction as a party.

  31. Bob @ Youngstown says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Most of these candidates don’t believe 3/4 of the false and ridiculous

    I pray that is true, but sometimes I’m not so sure!

  32. Andre Kenji says:


    Not just kale – acai berries or the latest miracle food.

    Here in Brazil açaí berries are a comfort food, it´s hyper caloric. I don´t understand people that sell it to lose weight. People here don´t understand that.

  33. Paul Hooson says:

    In recent years, the modern GOP often becomes overcome by cult thinking and koolaid drinking…