Chris Christie has come under fire for remarks suggesting that parents should have a choice in which vaccines their children do and don't receive. Those remarks got fierce pushback from public health officials, but it turns out Christie isn't the only one who has questioned the validity of vaccines. Both President Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) did so during their presidential runs in 2008. Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth noted their remarks at the time:
"We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it."
--Barack Obama, Pennsylvania Rally, April 21, 2008.
"It's indisputable that (autism) is on the rise among children, the question is what's causing it. And we go back and forth and there's strong evidence that indicates it's got to do with a preservative in vaccines."
--John McCain, Texas town hall meeting, February 29, 2008.
Obama was, as I note below, gesturing to an audience member when he said "this person included." Even so, his remarks were still off: the science that disproves a link between autism and vaccines (particularly the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine) is not inconclusive. It wasn't back in 2008 when McCain and Obama made these remarks — and it has become even more solid in the seven years since then.
Back in 2008, there were at least five studies that found no link between vaccines and autism. "The body of epidemiological evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism," the Institute of Medicine concluded in 2004.
"The overwhelming weight of scientific opinion," the Washington Post's Fact Checker column wrote at the time, "is that there is no proven link between autism and the vaccines."
At the time though, there was still one study floating around that did suggest a link between autism and vaccines, published in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet in 1998. This was a study of 12 children that kicked off all the concerns about links between autism and vaccines.
Other researchers kept trying to replicate his work. They couldn't. And two years later, it became clear why the autism-vaccine link didn't surface in any other research: Wakefield faked his data. The Lancet retracted his study in 2010; If you go try and read the Wakefield study today, you'll find that the Lancet has waterstamped it, over and over again, with a bright red "RETRACTED" mark.
An investigation later revealed that Wakefield actually went into the medical records of all 12 patients he studied and modified that information to create the appearance of a link between vaccines and autism. The whole operation was the antithesis of good science, with Wakefield using blood samples from friend's of his son at a birthday party. (He paid each child £5 to draw their blood. Seriously.) Investigators described his work as an "elaborate fraud." Wakefield has since been banned from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom.
Obama, eight years later, has changed his opinion. He now says that the science on the safety of "vaccines" is indisputable — the exact right summary of the state of research today.
Update: Glenn Kessler pointed out an update to his article that I cited, where then-Obama spokesperson Tommy Vietor argues that Obama was not referring to himself when he says "this person included." The video there no longer works, but here's a version that was uploaded to YouTube yesterday.
This suggests Obama wasn't referring to himself when he made the remark. And the blog Little Green Footballs points out times in the Obama candidacy when he was markedly pro-vaccine. At the same time, Obama did go on to describe the research on vaccines and autism as inconclusive at a point when scientists had found the opposite: that there was no link between the two.