WASHINGTON — Two Republican senators, both physicians, clashed Tuesday over whether the government should make vaccinations mandatory.
When Sen. (and ophthalmologist) Rand Paul, MD (R-Ky.), known for his libertarian views, said some vaccine mandates had “run amok,” that drew the attention of Sen. (and gastroenterologist) Bill Cassidy, MD (R-La.).
“If you are such a believer in liberty that you do not wish to be vaccinated, then there should be a consequence and that is that you cannot infect other people,” Cassidy said in defending school vaccination requirements.
Senators on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee met Tuesday to gain insight from stakeholders regarding what Congress can do to boost vaccination rates and reduce “vaccine hesitancy.”
Measles, as witnesses and senators testified, was thought to have been eradicated in the U.S. in 2000.
Six measles outbreaks are underway now in the U.S., noted Washington state’s health secretary, John Wiesman, DrPH, MPH, in written testimony.
“[O]ne in Washington, three in New York, one in Texas and one in Illinois,” Wiesman noted. “The current outbreak is larger and infecting people faster than those in recent history.”
Last year, there were 17 outbreaks nationwide, primarily concentrated in three states, according to the CDC, The Washington Post reported.
The problem, said HELP Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), is the “pockets” in the U.S. where vaccination rates have fallen.
While most senators agreed on the need for vaccination, Paul disputed the need to make it mandatory.
He noted that, in the past, a government-mandated vaccine for rotavirus was reversed when it was discovered that the vaccine caused intestinal blockages in children. Paul also pointed out that flu vaccines are sometimes “completely wrong” when scientists choose the wrong strain of vaccine.
“[I]t is wrong to say that there are no risk to vaccines,” he said, noting that the government’s Vaccine Injury Compensation program has paid $4 billion since 1988.
And still, Paul said, no informed consent is required for a vaccine.
Paul also appeared ambivalent over concerns about individuals who choose not to be immunized for non-medical reasons, spreading diseases to people with compromised immune systems.
“There doesn’t seem to be enough evidence of this happening, to be reported as a statistic, but it could happen,” he said.
“I’m not here to say don’t vaccinate your kids. If this hearing is for persuasion, I’m all for persuasion. I vaccinated myself, I vaccinated my kids. For myself and my children, I believe that the benefits of vaccine greatly outweigh the risk, but I still do not favor giving up on liberty for a false sense of security,” Paul concluded, garnering applause from anti-vaccine advocates in the room.
Choosing his words carefully, Cassidy said he’d like to “give some color to what Senator Paul said.”
He pointed out that there currently is a federal statute requiring that vaccine information statements be shared with patients, and that most states “typically do require informed consent.” He noted that in years when scientists choose the wrong strain of flu vaccine, “there is a cross benefit that will decrease the severity.”
And Cassidy stressed the matter of “herd immunity” to counter Paul’s’ skepticism, by noting that hospitals often require employees to be immunized.
“[I]f the nurse’s aide is not immunized she can be a ‘Typhoid Mary,’ if you will, bringing disease to many who are immunocompromised,” Cassidy said.
“In terms of a requirement,” Cassidy continued, “the requirement is just that you cannot enter school unless you’re vaccinated. … If you believe in liberty, that’s fine, don’t get immunized but I don’t think you need to necessarily expose others to disease.”
Cassidy noted and confirmed with one of the witnesses that in Washington state, several years ago, an immunocompromised child with cancer died after another child brought measles to school.
Witnesses were asked what more Congress can do to prevent future outbreaks of diseases for which there are vaccines.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) asked specifically how Congress can help state health departments in particular.
Wiesman noted that resources for prevention at all levels — state, local, tribal, and territorial — have been declining. He recalled a few months ago being on a call with CDC staff who encouraged a “proactive vaccination campaign” targeting homeless individuals and injection drug users.
“I asked my staff, ‘What would a plan look like?'” he said. “It would probably cost us $5 million dollars. I don’t have those resources. I don’t have the staff. … That’s very, very concerning to me.”
At the same hearing, a now-famous high school student from Norwalk, Ohio, explained why he defied his mother, and chose to get immunized in December 2018, once he was of legal age to do so. His story was already well known thanks to national media coverage in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s hearing.
Ethan Lindenberger said his decision was based out of concern for his own health and safety as well as for others. Throughout his life, he grew up understanding his mother’s belief that vaccines were dangerous. Yet “seeds of doubt” grew from conversations his mother had, either in person or online, with critics of her views.
While he was pulled from class and told every year he could not attend school without his vaccines, every year he was “opted out” of immunizations and, because of current legislation, allowed to stay in school, Lindenberger’s written testimony noted.
“And so my school viewed me as a health threat … that for me also pushed into getting my vaccines, despite my mother’s beliefs,” Lindenberger told the committee.