Republicans divided on germ theory of disease and the monstrous legacy of Dr. Jonas Salk

Republicans divided on germ theory of disease and the monstrous legacy of Dr. Jonas Salk February 3, 2015

On Monday morning, the Today show broadcast an interview with President Barack Obama in which he urged parents to get their children vaccinated. “The science is, you know, pretty indisputable,” the president said. “There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not.”

The president didn’t say anything new or controversial. Nor did he say anything partisan. But for those who view him as inherently partisan and illegitimate, anything Obama says has to be immediately contradicted. And so — as with health insurance mandates, immigration reform, net neutrality and a host of other prior examples — Republicans responded by coming out swinging. If Obama is for vaccination, then they would have to be against it.

This has made for a really weird couple of days, with a growing split among Republicans between those who apparently feel bound to automatically gainsay whatever Obama says and those who are willing to maintain their prior support for motherhood, apple pie and the blueness of the sky even after Obama has also spoken in favor of such things.

So for the past two days, we’ve seen a steady parade of ambitious Republican officials denouncing the evils of vaccination and attacking the germ theory of disease, followed by another group of Republican officials trying to control the damage by arguing that #NotALLRepublicans think that preventing disease is a Bad Thing.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie expressed sympathy for those who believe in anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, supporting giving parents more “choice” in deciding whether or not to vaccinate their children and calling for “balance.”

History's Greatest Monster. (Photo of Dr. Jonas Salk by Yousuf Karsh, 1956)
History’s Greatest Monster. (Photo of Dr. Jonas Salk by Yousuf Karsh, 1956)

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky allowed that vaccinating children might be “a good idea,” but he opposes requiring vaccination, saying “for the most part it ought to be voluntary.” (Paul has been anti-vaccination for a long time, arguing back in 2009 that parents should do their own biomedical research on each new vaccine as it arises in order to decide for themselves.)

• “We should not have an oppressive state telling us what to do,” said Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy, speaking up for Americans’ freedom to contract small pox.

Republican Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama argued that the real problem isn’t vaccination, but immigration. Brooks is worried about “diseases brought into America by illegal aliens who are not properly health care screened.” (No, Brooks doesn’t want better health screening for immigrants. He just wants fewer immigrants.)

• Medical doctor turned right-wing pundit Ben Carson initially responded like a medical doctor, affirming the importance of vaccination for “public health and public safety.” But then, realizing that he was allowing a bit of daylight to his (far) right, shifted to adopt Brooks’ blame-the-immigrants theory.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas tried to cram the “debate” over medical science into the “religious liberty” category that he seems to hope will be a one-size-fits all slogan for every issue. But he also said “we’ve vaccinated both our girls and would encourage people to do the same.” (By which he meant everybody should vaccinate their own children, not that everybody should vaccinate his daughters. They’re good, thanks.)

• “I do believe all children ought to be vaccinated,” said Speaker of the House John Boehner, sounding like he’s getting tired of the political atmosphere he helped to create.

• “As a victim of polio myself, I’m a big fan of vaccinations,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who likewise seemed a bit uncomfortable to be reminded that his position as majority leader depends on the support of a bunch of fellow Republicans who seem to think of Jonas Salk as a jackbooted Big Government thug.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal urged all parents to get their kids vaccinated and defended his state’s vaccine requirements for public schools, adding “that he personally would not send his children to a school that did not require vaccinations.”

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has previously avoided acknowledging the scientific consensus by pointing out that “I’m not a scientist, man,” but today he endorsed vaccination without qualification and dismissed the anti-science conspiracy theories of anti-vaxxers. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (both of whom also seem to be running for president) also urged families to vaccinate their kids.

• Among prominent Republicans who (probably) aren’t running for office: Donald Trump affirmed both vaccination and the conspiracy theories of anti-vaxxers; Pat Robertson opposes vaccination (and water fluoridation); Glenn Beck defended anti-vaxxes, comparing them to Galileo; and long-time anti-vaxxer Phyllis Schlafly is basking in the glow of so many others coming around to her point of view.

Finally, in a somewhat related story, Sen. Tom Tillis of North Carolina raised another angle for this new battle over the politics of the germ theory of disease. Tillis suggested that businesses are over-regulated and should be allowed to “opt-out” of onerous laws like the one requiring employees to wash their hands before serving food.

Tillis framed this as a joke — and it’s kind of funny, even if it doesn’t quite make sense: “I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says ‘We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom,’” Tillis said. “The market will take care of that.”

It’s not clear to me why the requirement to post such a customer-repelling sign would be a less onerous form of regulation than the existing health codes requiring hand-washing. But if you’re worried that government overreach is restricting your freedom to be exposed to E. coli, then I guess Tillis deserves your support.





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