Asking a Childhood Vaccination Expert About the GOP Debate

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Photo: ROBYN BECK

No doubt one of the weirder exchanges of last night’s Republican primary debate happened when Ben Carson was asked to comment on Donald Trump’s history of linking childhood vaccines to autism. He did, sort of, but also suggested that pediatricians may be administering too many vaccinations in a short time, a position shared by many who are skeptical about the utility of vaccines altogether.

Dr. Paul Offit, director of Vaccine Education at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, weighed in on the science (or lack thereof) behind Trump’s anti-vaccine statements, Carson’s response, and whether the candidates’ comments are likely to have any public-health consequences.

Is there any potential benefit to spacing out vaccinations?
No. When you make that choice, all you’re doing is increasing the period of time during which children are susceptible to vaccine-preventable diseases without benefit.

Is there any potential harm?
There’s only harm. The minute that you choose to delay a vaccine you take an unnecessary risk — which is basically what you saw this year with the measles epidemic in California. Those parents in Southern California had chosen not to vaccinate their children until they were older, and as a consequence they formed the epicenter of a massive epidemic.

Do you think there might be increased skepticism about vaccines after the debate?
I don’t think so. I think the media hasn’t succumbed to that mantra of false balance.

Do you think there’s any possibility that what Trump said could get some kids sick?
Yes, I think he has the potential to do harm. I think any time anyone has that kind of platform, there comes a responsibility with that platform. If you then choose to take that platform and misinform the public, which can only cause them to make bad decisions which hurt their children, you haven’t met that responsibility.

Studies have shown that trying to browbeat people into vaccinating their kids tends to only solidify any resistance to the idea they might have. So what’s the best way to convince someone to do the right thing?
I try and make it clear that we’re on the same side, that we both want what’s best for their child, and that they’re putting me in a position to love their child. Loving their child means putting them in the best type of position possible, and that’s what vaccines do. We’re all on the same side here.

You need to find out what it is about vaccines that scares parents. Then, hopefully, there is information to address that fear, and then you present that information in a compelling, emotional way. I think it’s okay to be passionate; when you choose not to get a vaccine, it’s not a risk-free choice — it’s just a choice to take a different and more serious risk.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Asking A Vaccine Expert About the GOP Debate