Comments by prominent Republicans questioning government-mandated measles vaccinations for children signal the public's declining trust in government, the healthcare system and the scientific establishment.
But such rhetoric threatens to undermine the nation's ability to address public-health threats, even as the number of measles cases in the U.S. continues to rise, experts say.
Potential GOP presidential candidates Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently spoke in favor of giving parents choice in having their children receive the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Medical experts overwhelmingly favor mandatory vaccination to protect public health.
States mandate children to be vaccinated before attending public school, with some medical, religious and personal belief exemptions.
Experts say such political talk fuels the public's already-skeptical view of science and healthcare, which has led to polarization on issues that include climate change, stem-cell research and the government's regulatory authority over food, drugs and medical devices. Some fear this could hurt the nation's ability to unite in times of crisis.
“It's important to have a system that's capable of coming together to say under certain conditions, we're willing to set problems aside because the consequences of not doing so are great,” said Michael Gusmano, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, a not-for-profit bioethics research institute based in Garrison, N.Y. Still, he added, “Fundamentally, you can't get around politics.”
Skepticism over the government's role was evident during last year's U.S. Ebola outbreak, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention faced criticism mostly from Republican politicians for its response. But politicizing public health goes beyond holding the government accountable for its performance in emergencies.