Sen. Rand Paul’s Vaccination Ideas Slammed in Senate—and by Science

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Rand Paul
Christopher Halloran /

February 10, 2015; The Hill

It is kind of hard to rely on Congress for scientific knowledge when the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Jim Inhofe (R-OK), believes that climate change related to human activity is, as his 2012 book was titled, “the greatest hoax.” But when Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), a doctor, suggested that parents should have some choice in whether or not to have their children vaccinated, mentioning that he knew of children who developed “profound mental disorders” after getting vaccinations (though he later amended his statement to say that he didn’t necessarily mean causation), that was a surprise. Let’s face it: The guy is a doctor.

At a meeting of the Senate Health Committee chaired by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Rand got no support. “Too many parents are turning away from sound science,” Alexander said. “Sound science is this: Vaccines save lives.” In response to a question from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Dr. Anne Schuchat, the director of the National Center for Immunization at the CDC, confirmed that there is no scientific evidence that vaccines cause profound mental disorders, but some of the diseases that the vaccines are meant to ward off can do so.

A member of the Health Committee, Rand was apparently a no-show without explanation from his office for this part of the hearing. Prior to becoming a senator, Paul was an ophthalmologist specializing in cataract and glaucoma surgeries and LASIK procedures. It may be that ophthalmology is a specialty that immunizes Rand, so to speak, from keeping up with the latest information on vaccines, but one would hope that as a medical professional, the importance of vaccinations is known even to ophthalmologists.

The libertarian presidential aspirant found himself with a shortage of allies on this issue even within his own party. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), an orthopedic surgeon, repeatedly responded to questions about the controversy with the statement, “As a doctor, I believe all children should be vaccinated.” Rand’s home-state senior senator, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, also weighed in: “As a victim of polio myself, I’m a big fan of vaccinations.”

All professions, even the medical profession, include some diversity of opinion, allowing not only for Dr. Rand’s data-free observations about vaccines causing profound mental disorders, but also for the theories of Andrew Wakefield. Stav Ziv described Wakefield in a recent Newsweek profile as the “father of the anti-vaccine movement,” particularly for his linking a specific vaccine to autism. However, Wakefield is actually a former doctor, stripped of his medical license in the UK for ethical violations and failure to disclose potential conflicts of interest—perhaps including the fact that he was pitching a single vaccine for measles while he was campaigning against the combined measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR). Wakefield’s research, such as it is, has been debunked numerous times in scholarly medical journals. Vaccinations are endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups and by the advocacy organization Autism Speaks, but that hasn’t stopped Wakefield from pushing his ideas and hasn’t stopped the likes of Rand Paul from picking up on his fears and turning them into a component of the libertarian political code.

When a national figure like Rand Paul, wrapped in medical credentials, comes out favoring “choice” and suggesting dire medical complications from vaccines, the ramifications are difficult to contain. Twenty states already allow parents to opt out of vaccinations for their children if they say, as in Minnesota, that vaccinations violate their “conscientiously held beliefs,” and 48 permit exemptions due to religious reasons. While some state legislators, such as Democratic State Senator Richard Pan from California, who happens to be a pediatrician, have responded to the recent 20-state measles outbreak with a bill to end vaccination exemptions, some state legislators have actually tried to protect or even expand exemptions—and the protectors of exemptions include both conservatives and liberals. In the latter camp is Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, a Democrat from New York and a father of an autistic child, who has introduced legislation to widen the state’s vaccine exemption statute.

The chief science officer for Autism Speaks, Rob Ring, has written, “The results of…[the] research are clear: Vaccines do not cause autism. We urge that all children be fully vaccinated.” Thanks to Rand Paul, more parents may look at vaccinations as a danger to their children, more dangerous than the possibility that they will contract measles, an incredibly infectious and dangerous disease, and add their children to the growing number of kids potentially vulnerable to the measles outbreak.—Rick Cohen

  • Rick Cohen

    Addendum: The controversy concerning Rand Paul’s ill-informed vaccination comments occurs with the backdrop of President Obama’s proposed cut of $50 million in the nation’s free immunization program authorized by Section 317 of the Public Health Service Act. The White House explains that because of the advent of the Affordable Care Act, the expansion of Medicaid, and the continuation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the need for a special immunization program is no longer quite as necessary. According to the Washington Post’s “Factchecker,” that isn’t completely accurate. It is true that insurance providers are required by the ACA to provide the MMR vaccination free, no co-pay or deductibles, and with more people now covered by health insurance as a result of the ACA, that reduces some of the obvious demand for federally subsidized vaccines. However, the Factchecker, in this case, Post reporter Michelle Ye Hee Lee explains that the purpose of the 317 program is much broader: “ The 317 program is the safety net for America’s uninsured and underinsured adults. It backfills vaccine services for the population that can slip through the cracks. This program also can pay for vaccines for insured children and adults during a public health emergency or outbreak…The majority of the 317 program pays for state and local public-health officials to educate immunization providers, raise public awareness, manage vaccine shortages, and prepare and respond to outbreaks. The funding for 317 program is divided into vaccine purchasing, immunization infrastructure and program operations.” Last year, the 317 budget was also cut, by more than $50 million, and some of that cut affected infrastructure, not just the supply of free vaccinations. The Administration says that its proposed $50 million cut will not affect the vaccination “infrastructure”, but public health advocates are not so sanguine. They believe that even if the bulk of the cuts affect vaccine purchases, there will still be reductions in the ability of public health departments to prepare for outbreaks that require vaccines—and to educate providers, such as Dr. Senator Paul. Despite White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest’s assurance that the Affordable Care Act guarantees that every citizen will have access to free vaccines, Lee points out that the ACA still leaves many adults underinsured or uninsured, as Earnest must know, leaving them dependent on the Section 317 program as a safety net.