In explaining his position on whether parents should be required to vaccinate their children against diseases that pose a public health risk, Senator Rand Paul has left himself with a lot of explaining to do.
In an interview with CNBC on Monday, Paul attempted to clarify remarks made earlier in the day on Laura Ingraham's radio show in which the presidential hopeful argued that most vaccines "ought to be voluntary." By way of example, Paul told CNBC that he chose to delay giving his own child the hepatitis B vaccine because he believed it unsafe to give a newborn too many shots too early in life.
"I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines," Paul added.
That same fear, that perfectly healthy children suddenly undergo tragic health consequences as a result of vaccination, is a pillar of the anti-vaccine movement. In fact, it last surfaced in the political sphere during the 2012 GOP presidential debates, when former Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann attacked then-Texas Governor Rick Perry over his executive order to vaccinate girls in the state against HPV, a virus that often leads to cervical cancer.
- QuickTake: Vilifying Vaccines
In an interview on Today the morning after the debate, Bachmann relayed the story of a woman who told her that her daughter suffered from "mental retardation" after receiving the HPV vaccine.
Numerous media outlets set about trying to link Guardasil, the HPV vaccine, and mental retardation, and all quickly concluded that there was no such evidence of a connection to be found. Two biotech professors went so far as to offer a $10,000 reward to anyone who could produce medical records that showed that the HPV vaccine had resulted in mental retardation of a little girl. Bachmann later attempted to clarify what she had meant by retelling the woman's story, and further demonstrated why all anecdotal claims—including the "many tragic cases" mentioned by Paul—need to be checked out.
"All I was doing is relaying what a woman had said," Bachmann told the Associated Press. "I relayed what she said. I wasn't attesting to her accuracy. I wasn't attesting to anything."
Paul's assertion that clustering vaccines at an early age represents a health risk to newborns was simply not true. In fact, a 2014 study in the journal Pediatrics found that delaying vaccinations simply increased health risks for infants. Whether Paul will be obliged to present the medical records of the children he referenced could easily help settle whether there is any scientific merit to the claims. If no evidence is put forth, however, Paul, who is a former ophthalmologist and says he has vaccinated all of his children, may well see his presidential aspirations go the way of Bachmann's.