Using Vaccination for Political Gain is Nothing New

The author of Vaccine Nation: America's Changing Relationship With Immunization explains that presidents spent 50 years addressing constituents with views on vaccines.

on January 26, 2015 in Mill Valley, California.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Let's just say it was a dizzying 24 hours. On Monday, Chris Christie's trip to London was overshadowed by his comment about the need to find "balance" in the vaccine debate, Rand Paul found himself under fire for his suggestion that vaccines "ought to be voluntary," Obama defended the science behind immunizations, and Hillary got a little snarky on the topic. 

It looked like a once-routine medical practice had become just another place for a partisan pile-on. But Elena Conis, an assistant professor of history at Emory University and the author of Vaccine Nation: America's Changing Relationship With Immunization, says even vaccines have a long political history, and the dividing line on whether one supports them hardly breaks down to a red vs. blue distinction. "People from across the political spectrum have doubts about vaccines," says Conis, who also has a master's in public health.

Bloomberg Politics: Do people reliably differ in their views on vaccines along party lines, the way they might about it, say, taxing the wealthy?

Elena Conis: No, parents and individuals from across the political spectrum share a wide range of vaccine worries. They're worried about the added number of vaccines and vaccine doses for children. They're worried about whether they can trust public officials and vaccine makers to give them objective advice on which vaccines are safe and which vaccines are necessary. I see the roots of today's vaccine worries as going back to the 1960s and 1970s, when the vaccine schedule for children began to expand at the same time that there was the growth of anti-authoritarian social movements, like the women's rights movement, the environmental movement, consumer's rights movement, peace movement, etc.

BP: So how common is parents deciding not to vaccinate?

EC: I think a significant fraction of American parents have some worries about some vaccines. [But] the rate of complete vaccine resistance, i.e., not accepting any vaccines for any disease, is still really low. 

BP: So there's a wide middle and not much fringe, and since the 1940s, presidents have almost always been big supporters of vaccines. Does that mean there didn't used to be much political dimension to them?

EC: Historically, presidents have promoted vaccination for political reasons. So using vaccination for political gain is absolutely nothing new. Kennedy supported childhood vaccinations for a number of reasons, but one of them was to counterbalance his administration's focus on healthcare for the elderly with Medicare. His advisers said we have to provide some domestic policy that advances the healthcare of other Americans. Carter supported childhood vaccination because, in his view, it was a cheap and fast way to curb skyrocketing healthcare costs—give cheap vaccines to all children and you avoid expensive disease and high health care costs down the line. His view of promoting childhood vaccination was that government works best when it helps people help themselves. For Clinton, it was a litmus test for public acceptance of universal healthcare. He wanted to buy all vaccines for all children and prove that government could take on the job of providing health care for all Americans. That didn't quite work out. If you look at our last [presidential] election, Michele Bachmann made comments about the risk of the HPV vaccine that were designed  to speak primarily to right-wing mistrust of big government.

BP: Have views changed since 2008, when even President Obama came close to saying there could be a link between vaccines and autism? 

EC: We've gotten to a place where we are increasingly shutting down dialogue about this issue in the public sphere. Chris Christie yesterday said something along the line of he believes in vaccines for his family but not all vaccines are the same and parents should have some element of choice. That's not a historically controversial view. But in this current climate, that got him pegged as dangerously, potentially anti-vaccine. That's something new. This issue has become increasingly polarized since 2008, and we are less tolerant of divergent and even semi-critical views on vaccination today.