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Selfish Politicians Who Politicize Vaccination Endanger the Public

02/05/2015 02:57 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

So now politics rears it's ugly head in the vaccine issue. A couple candidates on the right throw some red meat to the conservative and libertarian "get government out of my life" tribes, saying people should have a choice about whether to vaccinate their kids, and the media, drawn to the faintest smell of blood in the political waters, blares these tribal messages out to the public, and people in those tribes say "Hey, YEAH! What my guy said! We should have choice! I'm against vaccinating kids because it's required!"

There is no reason to mince words here. Politicization of this issue is selfish, and dangerous. As N.J. Governor Chris Christie Kentucky Senator Rand Paul full well know, PEOPLE ALREADY HAVE CHOICE! Parents can opt out of having their kids vaccinated for either philosophical or religious reasons, depending on the state. Posturing as a defender of individual liberty, when people already have it, is selfish political grandstanding and nothing more.

And it is directly harmful to public health, because it will color how some people feel about vaccination. We follow the thought leaders of our tribes on lots of issues. We don't carefully think everything through and with open minds objectively analyze the facts. We usually just adopt the tribal view on a given issue, the view as declared by our tribal leaders, because by sharing the view of the tribe we are accepted as a member in good standing and therefore merit the protection of the tribe. It instinctively feels safer to agree with the beliefs of the groups with which we most closely associate.

So when Christie and Paul question mandatory vaccination in the name of 'get government out of our lives' individual liberty, people who share that general value -- and particularly those who support Christie or Paul -- simply join in, and resistance to mandatory vaccination goes up.

To their credit, other conservative potential presidential candidates are not rising to this politically selfish behavior. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindahl didn't bite on the lure of talking about individual liberty and instead came out solidly for vaccination. Period. Unlike Christie, who said he supports vaccination, but added his unnecessary defense of choice. Or unlike Paul, who also said he's for vaccination, but added "I've heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children, who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines." That is either ignorant or outrageous political pandering, similar to the whacky statement Michelle Bachman made after a primary debate in the 2012 presidential campaign about 'this woman told me that vaccines made her kid mentally retarded,' for which she was deservedly mocked. Paul should be too.

To be fair, there is a question about just how much choice people should have in opting out of vaccination. Outbreaks of vaccine controllable diseases in geographic pockets where vaccination rates have fallen below herd immunity levels suggest that it may be too easy to opt out. But this is an easy problem to solve. Opting out should still be possible. It should just be more difficult. It needs to be harder than just signing a form.

• People with philosophical/personal belief objections should have to provide materials that explain those objections. Perhaps they should have to write an essay, offer evidence of other things they do in their life that follow those beliefs, or provide a reading list demonstrating where their philosophy comes from. Philosophical objections based on denial of firm scientific evidence should not be allowed. School systems are not the place to have that fight.

• People with religious objections should have to provide material that spells out why their religion opposes vaccination. (Most don't.) This should include both an explanation, and a signed letter from the objector's Rabbi or Priest or Imam.

• In states with philosophical objections that have tried to make it harder to opt out by requiring a note from a doctor saying they have informed their patient about the pros and cons of vaccination, (a tactic adopted in a few states and being pursued in several others), there should be a requirement that the health care provider actually spend 15-20 minutes talking about the issue with their patient. That can be checked on their schedules. The health care provider should be held liable if they sign the note without spending that time.

Yes, people should have choice. But it should be harder to opt out than just signing a form. Early research indicates that this extra effort discourages some parents from opting out, and moves vaccination rates for some diseases closer to herd immunity levels. Society has the well-established right in law to do this kind of thing, in the name of public health.

It also has the right to vote. And candidates who posture on the vaccination question the way Christie and Paul have, endangering public health in the process, should be held accountable for such selfishness at the ballot box.