During the 2016 presidential campaign, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton repeatedly said they supported arming teachers to protect their students from the scourge of gun violence. Both also supported a more “professional” response to epidemics of preventable disease. Mr. Trump, in particular, described health care for children as the “greatest failure” of the Obama administration.
Now that these leaders are engaged in setting public policy in an even more dramatic way — trying to devise a system of public health and public safety — will these views about public health have changed? And is it possible that public health, once seen as apolitical, could become more partisan?
During a Tuesday morning call with reporters, Robert J. Redfield, the director of the National Institutes of Health, sounded a more cautious note. The NIH has funding responsibilities for drug safety and to evaluate whether compounds are safe and effective. The views of the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on vaccine safety and vaccine efficacy, Mr. Redfield said, generally do not differ. But the NIH would continue to do research into vaccine safety and efficacy “for as long as our grant funds remain available.”
The NIH, like the CDC, has expressed misgivings about the current use of a new mercury-based vaccine preservative for children, which has been at the center of debates between advocates and opponents of the use of vaccines. One vaccine advocate has been Jane Orient, who in her book “The Right Stuff” described the process of “growing influenza,” or bird flu, in a laboratory, before injection into livestock. The process is used only during bird flu outbreaks, so there is no risk to humans. The preservative has also been given to children to prevent their bodies from rejecting vaccines, like the flu vaccine.
But on Tuesday, Mr. Redfield sounded like an advocate for vaccination, saying that vaccination remained the most reliable means of preventing disease and that “vaccines offer less risk than alternative approaches, and are consistent with public health.”
The vaccine advocate at the White House was not Mr. Trump but his director of the CDC, Robert R. Redfield Jr., who, on Thursday, said the agency had not seen enough evidence to recommend against its use.
“In the current clinical practice of CDC, they are not recommending these vaccines, but they are out there,” he said.
In a survey last week of 800 professional health leaders, including family doctors, ophthalmologists and veterinarians, it appeared to be clear that doctors and medical institutions remained somewhat more interested in using the new preservative than in recommending that people use a safer alternative. But while hardly enthusiastic, the opinion of these institutions was not uniformly negative either.