Jill Stein continues pandering to anti-vaxxers

Jill Stein Continues Pandering to Anti-Vaxxers

Jill Stein Continues Pandering to Anti-Vaxxers

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A blog about business and economics.
July 29 2016 3:44 PM

Jill Stein Continues Pandering to Anti-Vaxxers

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Jill Stein.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

She just can't help herself.

Jill Stein, the Harvard-educated doctor and Green Party candidate for president, was given yet another opportunity to clarify her position on whether vaccines are safe for children during an interview with the Washington Post published Friday. And yet again, she delivered an answer that no-so-subtly pandered to immunization skeptics.

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“As a medical doctor, there was a time where I looked very closely at those issues, and not all those issues were completely resolved," Stein said. "There were concerns among physicians about what the vaccination schedule meant, the toxic substances like mercury which used to be rampant in vaccines. There were real questions that needed to be addressed. I think some of them at least have been addressed. I don’t know if all of them have been addressed."

Let's consider this statement carefully. Stein is invoking her authority as a medical professional to say that there were legitimate reasons to be concerned about the toxicity of vaccines, and that she doesn't know if those issues have been resolved. Stein is not saying vaccines are necessarily unsafe. But for all she knows, they might be—some way, somehow. She is leaving open the possibility.

Back here on Earth, there is no evidence that vaccines pose a danger to children's health. Doctors know this.

Stein's new answer on vaccines may actually be more egregious than the Reddit AMA post in which she first addressed the issue, which I reported on earlier this week. In that statement, she explained that while childhood immunization had “made a huge contribution to the public health,” one couldn't blame parents for being skeptical of vaccines because our food and drug regulators were controlled by corporate lobbyists. She also revisited some of those themes in her Washington Post interview. (Note: I transcribed this from the Post's video; the article misses a few words:)

I think there’s no question that vaccines have transformed public health and been absolutely critical in ridding us of the scourge of many diseases—smallpox, polio, etc. So vaccines are an invaluable medication. Like any medication, they also should be—what shall we say?—approved by a regulatory board that people can trust. And I think right now, that is the problem. That people do not trust a Food and Drug Administration, or even the CDC for that matter, where corporate influence and the pharmaceutical industry has a lot of influence.
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Stein sums it all up this way: "We have a real compelling need for vaccinations,” Stein said. “It requires an agency that we can trust to sort through all of those concerns.”

Stein is talking from both sides of her mouth (much as she did in the Reddit AMA). In one breath, she acknowledges that vaccines have been indispensable for public health. In another, she darkly hints that vaccines are regulated by shills for big pharma—an idea for which, as the Washington Post notes, there's little evidence. Of the 17 members of the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee—the body that provides independent advice to the Food and Drug Administration on these issues—two work for drug companies. The others mostly work at research centers, hospitals, and medical schools; the chairwoman is Kathryn Edwards, who runs the vaccine research program at the University of Vanderbilt Medical School. Perhaps some of those individuals have conflicts of interest thanks to less obvious drug industry ties (maybe they did time in a Pfizer lab), but advocates ought to provide some evidence of that before casting aspersions.

So let us review. Jill Stein says that:

  1. Vaccines have been critical to eliminating diseases like polio.
  2. There were serious questions about the safety of vaccines, that may or may not have been dealt with.
  3. The FDA is in the pocket of big pharma.
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Does this make Jill Stein a hardcore anti-vaxxer? No. She's not standing around telling crowds that smallpox disappeared because of better hygiene, thank God. She's not Jenny McCarthy, circa 2008. But rather than helping to put to bed the concerns of worried parents, she's indulging and even encouraging their fears by saying something may be wrong with childhood immunizations, and that the government appointees who tell them otherwise are bought and paid for. Just as I wrote earlier this week, she's pandering to the anti-vaxxers without explicitly embracing their most extreme views. Her position is arguably no worse than statements Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama made in 2008 suggesting there were questions about vaccine safety. The difference is that it's now 2016, Clinton and Obama have both seen the light, and Stein is a doctor.

The sad irony is that Stein could play a constructive role dampening this controversy. She's a far-left politician who is probably winning the trust of many vaccine-skeptic voters based on issues that have nothing to do with bio-science. As such, she'd be an ideal messenger for the idea that vaccines are safe. A simple statement from her that vaccines do not pose a toxic threat to children, and that skipping vaccines could harm both their health and the public's, might help convince worried parents to take their kids in for shots. Instead, she's playing politics with the subject. It's a shame.

Update, July 29, 2016, at 6:47 p.m.: Late on Friday, Stein tweeted out the following:

This may sound reassuring. It's not. Many anti-vaxxers wil claim that they support vaccines in the abstract but believe there may be problems with the immunization schedule (a topic she brought up in her interview with the Washington Post), or that there are very specific safety issues that the medical community needs to address. Jenny McCarthy, arguably the most famous vaccine skeptic in the country, is fond of saying, “We’re not an anti-vaccine movement. We’re pro-safe-vaccine schedule.”

In my opinion, it will be clear that Stein has stopped pandering to anti-vaxxers only when she unequivocally acknowledges the following:

  1. Vaccines are safe and all children should be vaccinated.
  2. Choosing not to vaccinate a child puts their health in danger.
  3. Choosing not to vaccinate a child puts other children in danger.

As a medical doctor, of course this should not be difficult for her.

Jordan Weissmann is Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.