Vaccination suddenly becomes a major political issue

The recent outbreak in measles cases has become a politically hot topic and brought to the forefront the problematic issue of balancing various rights. Politicians, especially in the Republican party, are having to dance around the issue to avoid stepping on the toes of their various bases of support and in the process have sometimes fallen flat on their faces. So as usual, they are trying to muddy the issue by blurring the lines between some fairly clear positions.

The most popular stance is to say that all children should be vaccinated without specifying how far they are willing to go to achieve that. Currently some states such as California allow children to attend school without being vaccinated either because of religious or philosophical beliefs. That ‘personal belief’ exemption has to be eliminated and I am glad to see that moves are under way to do so. The philosophical exemption may be easier to get rid of than the religious one because of the absurd belief that religious beliefs, however dangerous or crazy, must be given special status.

This is where the Republican party and some of its libertarian elements is getting divided. They do not want to alienate their religious base. They also do not want to cross those libertarians who think that individuals should have the right to opt out of vaccinations because only parents can make decisions about their children. And then of course there are the anti-government paranoids who think that anything the government proposes must be opposed on principle. The fact that president Obama has come out strongly in favor of vaccinations is likely to make these people even less likely to comply.

One position, and the one that I support, is that public health interests are paramount and that people should not have the right to undermine the health of the public based on their private beliefs. That means that the government should require that all children should be vaccinated, except those that have a valid medical reason not to. Does that mean that all children must be vaccinated, in that parents can be prosecuted if they don’t comply? A strong case can be made in favor of it because parents should not be allowed to put their own children at risk either. Just as much as they should not be allowed to deny their children life-saving medical treatment, they should not be allowed to risk their children getting diseases that can cause serious illness and even death when they can be easily prevented with the use of safe vaccines.

But it may not be necessary to go that far. If you make it a requirement that you need to be vaccinated in order to attend any school (public, private, or parochial), that would be sufficient to ensure compliance for all but the most ardent anti-vaxxer, whether they be religious or libertarian, who would now have to home-school their children. If those children are taken out of circulation, it may be possible to protect them and the public at large.

Catherine Thompson has been keeping track of this issue and has compiled a timeline of the rise of the false belief that the vaccines cause autism and the roles played by prominent people in fostering the myth. It should be noted that the anti-vaxxers fingered the substance thimerosal in the vaccines as the cause of autism. But that was removed in 2002 and the incidence of autism has continued to rise. But that fact has not deterred the true believers.

She has also compiled a list of the positions of the current crop of candidates who are vying for the presidency in 2016. This is changing rapidly as candidates seek to find ways to please all sides and failing, thus lurching from one position to the next, with Chris Christie and Rand Paul being the most prominent in their stumbles.

Even the people on Fox News are all over the map on this with some supporting vaccinations and the die-hard junk-science believers still holding out for parental choice. This means that Republican politicians have no clear guidance on what they should say and have to actually think about the issue, which I am sure must be a painful position to be in.

Even Ben Carson, whose positions are so extreme that he seems like a satirist, has come out in favor of vaccinations (I guess he couldn’t completely shake off his medical education) though, deciding he needed to placate his equally extremist followers, he then gratuitously added that he was concerned about unvaccinated children sneaking across the border and infecting American children, though the rates of vaccination in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador from where most of the undocumented children come from, are around 93%.

The recent outbreaks of infectious diseases have caused serious problems for those who reject science. It is one thing to pander to your religious base and suggest that the jury is still out on evolution or the age of the Earth or global warming, because there are no immediate consequences for going against a clear scientific consensus. But when it comes to vaccinations and public health, you cannot reject science without risking public health in a tangible way.


  1. Trebuchet says

    My wife is freaking out this morning because there’s an adult case of measles in a town 60 miles away. She doesn’t know if she had it because her parents couldn’t afford doctors. I did have it but was 60 years ago. Do I still have immunity? Who knows.

  2. Saad says

    I’m shocked that it’s even a political issue… a basic medical topic that’s as commonplace as ibuprofen is being treated like it’s abortion… oh wait, that’s just another medical topic too… never mind.

  3. anat says

    In Washington state all that is absolutely required is that a doctor confirm that they talked with the child’s parents about the benefits and risks of vaccines. The exemption rate vary a lot, in mainstream schools can be anything from 2% to 12%, but in more ‘hippie’ schools can be 25%-40%.

  4. dean says

    It is also sad to hear the all too common excuse of “My children are my property, not the government’s -- when your mindset is such that people are reduced to objects of possession I guess any position is allowable.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    All right, I have a confession to make. I’m deeply ashamed by this, but here goes.

    I am the parent of an unvaccinated child.

    It doesn’t have anything to do with autism, or the risks of how the vaccines are spaced out, or anything like that.

    My wife is a dedicated vegetarian, and she objects to vaccines that kill animals to create their ingredients. In the case of the MMR vaccine, that includes both gelatin and fetal bovine serum (blood drawn in a slaughterhouse from the heart of a cow fetus).

    While I’m a vegetarian too, I don’t go this far. We have been arguing about this since before we had children. If I push it to hard, I may end up wrecking our marriage. Every year or so, though, I bring it up again and try everything I can throw at her to persuade her; so far, though, I haven’t gotten her to budge an inch. For her, the lives of other animals are just as valuable as the lives of humans — even our own children.

    I’m bringing this up here for just one reason. I’m NOT interested in hearing other arguments I can use against my wife. Believe me, I’ve tried them all, many times.

    But after our last argument last night, and many hours of research, I thought that maybe, someone somewhere might know of some way to find a version of the vaccine that doesn’t use this ingredient. I’d be willing to pay a good deal to find such a thing. Or perhaps there might be a way to lobby for a vegan version of the vaccine to be developed.

    Can anyone help me?

  6. busterggi says

    Simple test -- is it sciencey? If yes then its anti-god, if no then its freedom. Or something.

  7. Mano Singham says


    This is a new issue that I had not heard before and I can see your dilemma and it must be tough for you.

    Offhand, I don’t know of such a vaccine but I have friends who are very strict vegans precisely on the same grounds as your wife and I will ask them how they dealt with this.

  8. moarscienceplz says

    Even Ben Carson, whose positions are so extreme that he seems like a satirist, has come out in favor of vaccinations (I guess he couldn’t completely shake off his medical education) though, deciding he needed to placate his equally extremist followers, he then gratuitously added that he was concerned about unvaccinated children sneaking across the border and infecting American children,

    I guess American vaccines only work against American diseases. Or, maybe all those Latin-speaking kids could be muttering magical incantations that disable the vaccines?

  9. anat says

    brucegee1962, wow. I did a quick search for vegan-sourced vaccines and I ran into some pages about vegan parents using every denialist tactic to justify why their kids don’t need to be vaccinated. If any of them were honest enough to say that yes, they understand the science, but they value animal welfare so much that they are willing to risk the health of their kids and other people’s kids because they consider it wrong to benefit from the suffering of others, I could respect them. After all, if vaccines were made by growing infectious agents in the living bodies of humans I would have had a serious problem with that. But instead they insist on clutching every denialist straw they can lay hands on.

  10. brucegee1962 says

    Yes, I think I ran into that page too.

    There seems to be some kind of movement afoot to fine replacements for fetal bovine serum, but I wasn’t able to find out much about it. I’d like to know whether it’s really the only way that the vaccine can be made, or if it’s just convenient. Many of the more recent vaccines don’t have animal products in them (and we’ve gotten those for our kids); it’s just the older ones that still seem to be made the same way.

  11. anat says

    Use of fetal bovine serum is very common in cell culture work of any kind, but I do know some people use serum-free media for some cultures (a lab-mate of mine does this with some of hers). But at least among cell lines used in research, serum-free systems are only available for a few. Also, only a minority of serum-free media are animal-product-free. See this paper.

    I am guessing that progress towards serum-free cell growth systems is faster in systems intended for production than it is in the research sector. When someone is developing an entirely new product, one can start the development process with this consideration in mind. When an there already is a successful product that uses animal products, there is a question of whether it is worthwhile to go through the entire development process again, including all the testing to demonstrate safety and efficacy. But I am on the research end, I know nothing of considerations of biotech companies.

  12. astrosmash says


    I don’t know you or your wife obviously, but I’m wonder if you did manage to find such a vaccine if your wife would actually capitulate then. Could it be that she’s actually looking for any excuse not to vaccinate and she’s found a’good’ one. Is the life and health of your child less valuable than that of an animal that was used to create dozens or hundreds of vaccines. What would her position be if your child DID actually become sick fro an avoidable vaccine?

    Tough questions…good luck!

  13. invivoMark says


    As anat says, bovine serum is pretty much essential for a lot of vaccines. Some vaccines need to be grown in mammalian cells, and most mammalian cell lines need to be grown in some sort of serum. A few can grow without serum, but those tend not to make good “workhorse” cell lines and are not useful for producing large quantities of a product like a vaccine. They are usually specialized cell lines, useful for modeling biological systems.

    The vaccines that don’t require serum and aren’t grown in chicken eggs are usually grown in bacteria. This is only possible for a small range of recombinant vaccines.

    I don’t have any sympathy for the objection to vaccines on the basis of using animals. I do not think it is morally okay to risk the health and lives of other people’s children, in addition to your own children, over the objection that animal serum is needed for the vaccine. To me, this issue would be a deal-breaker.

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