WASHINGTON (CNN) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took a measured approach wading into the debate over vaccines sparked by a measles outbreak in the United States, saying that while he vaccinates his own children, parents should be able to choose.
“All I can say is that we vaccinate ours. I think it’s much more important as a parent than as a public official, and that’s what we do,” he told reporters during his trip to England on Monday. He went on to say that’s “part of making sure we protect their health and public health.”
“I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice as well. So that’s a balance the government has to decide,” Christie added.
The scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that vaccines are needed to protect the public, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided assurances that the United States “has the safest, most effective vaccine supply in history.”
With the outbreak of the measles epidemic in December — after the disease was eradicated from the U.S. in 2000 — the scientific community is mobilizing to counter the “anti-vax” movement, which has grown over the past decade.
Asked whether he was advocating leaving parents the option to not vaccinate their kids, Christie said “I didn’t say I’m leaving people the option,” but that “it depends what the vaccine is, what the disease type is and all the rest.”
“And so we have to have that conversation. [It] has to move and shift to disease type. Not every vaccine is created equal. Not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others,” Christie said.
He went on to say that the debate over whether to vaccinate children should measure “whatever the perceived danger by the vaccine is — and we’ve had plenty of that over a period of time — versus what the risk to public health is.”
Shortly after Christie’s comments were picked up by national media, his spokesman, Kevin Roberts, issued an email clarifying the governor’s position, asserting that states should have jurisdiction over the issue, as they currently do.
“The Governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated. At the same time different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which ones government should mandate,” he said.
Christie’s careful dance on the issue reflects the potential political trouble brewing over the question of whether parents should vaccinate their children.
President Barack Obama weighed in on the issue during a Sunday interview with NBC, urging parents to get their kids vaccinated.
“I understand that there are families that, in some cases, are concerned about the effect of vaccinations,” he said. “The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not.”
But despite Obama’s insistence that the science supporting the need for vaccines is “indisputable,” the vaccine debate has been problematic for politicians in the past.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry came under fire in the primaries from opponents during his 2012 run for president for issuing an executive order that mandated all young girls must receive a vaccine that protects against some forms of cervical cancer.
He eventually flipped on the mandate and supported the Texas legislature’s decision to overturn it, saying he made a mistake.
“If I had it to do over again, I would have done it differently,” he said then.
Christie’s careful hedge on the issue suggests he’s wary of offering his potential presidential opponents ammunition for another such fight in the future.