Do politicians need to stay away from public health topics?

Posted on September 19, 2015

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While watching the GOP candidate debate on Wednesday night, I shook my head in disbelief as Republican candidate, Donald Trump, again misinformed the entire nation about the effects of vaccinations. Trump told the story of a “beautiful” baby who developed a fever after being vaccinated at age 2, and then became autistic as a result.

I expected a better response from Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon, who initially refuted the claim that autism and vaccines were linked, but then became hazier when he said the current recommended vaccine schedule for children should be spaced out.

The next morning, I realized I wasn’t alone when I saw this statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics reiterating the safety and importance of vaccines.

 “Its just a stupid debate” a colleague said, after I went on a mini-rant at work the next day. “Why would anyone listen to what politicians have to say about health anyway?”. Well here’s why:

  1. A reported 23.1 million people tuned into this debate, making it the most watched program in CNN’s history
  2. We are in a “microwave news” age, where information spreads exponentially and a good number of people do little or no fact-checking.
  3. These were careless and highly misinformed statements that could pose a potential danger to public health if families choose not to vaccinate their children based on their remarks.
  4. Public health is too important for it to become political fodder. And if anyone must speak about it, the least they can do is have evidence-based support.

Multiple studies have shown that there is no link between vaccinations and autism. Children today are vaccinated against 14 diseases, beginning at birth, and skipping, delaying or spacing them out doesn’t make them safer but instead leaves them vulnerable to life-threatening diseases. As a matter of fact, research shows that the recent measles outbreak that began at Disneyland, which affected about 188 people, was fueled by parents who didn’t vaccinate their children.

But this post is not about autism or Donald Trump (even though he is quite the entertainer) or even vaccines. It’s about how I am constantly astounded by the lack of understanding of well learned officials concerning public health. Their policies usually emphasize the role of religion and family values when discussing issues such as birth control and women’s health, forgetting that they impact actual people with real heath needs not imaginary voting blocks. There have been a few other cases of blunders that make me think perhaps politicians should just stay away from using public health as a political pawn, especially if they don’t have enough regard for the “people they serve” to actually do their homework. A few examples are Missouri rep. Todd Akin claiming that women who are legitimately raped are naturally protected from pregnancy, or Michelle Bachmann calling the HPV vaccine “a very dangerous drug” and suggesting a link to mental retardation, and South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki who denied SA citizens of life-saving anti-HIV drugs due to the misinformation that they caused AIDS.

However, due to the nature of politics, I don’t see this trend going anywhere. Therefore, as individuals/consumers, the onus is on us to fact check. If you’re not sure, don’t hesitate to ask a qualified health specialist or at the very least do some research on your own. Maybe next time, you could pull your favorite politician aside and explain in detail how science actually works.

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