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Scientists outraged that Trump may put vaccine conspiracy theorist in charge of new ‘vaccine safety’ commission

REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
Robert Kennedy Jr. speaking with members of the press at Trump Tower in New York City on Tuesday.

For scientists and health officials — particularly experts in infectious diseases — Robert Kennedy Jr.’s announcement Tuesday that President-elect Donald Trump had asked him to chair a new commission on “vaccine safety and scientific integrity” was both dismaying and disturbing. 

Kennedy — a lawyer without a medical degree — is a long-time and prominent vaccine conspiracy theorist who charges health officials around the world with covering up the dangers of childhood vaccines, which he claims can trigger autism and other neurological disorders. 

Let me stop right here. There is absolutely no evidence to support that view. The science — and there has been a ton of it on this subject — is very clear: Childhood vaccines have absolutely no connection to autism. Vaccines are safe and have saved many, many children’s lives. They have also helped prevent neurological disorders. One of the potential complications of measles, for example, is encephalitis (swelling of the brain), which can cause lifelong brain damage.

And the idea that there is a widespread global conspiracy among pediatricians, public health officials, researchers and other experts to hide the “truth” about vaccines is ludicrous, if only for the fact that those very same experts vaccinate their own children. Such claims are also, frankly, insulting to the countless medical professionals around the world who have devoted their lives to protecting the health of all children.

The “science” Kennedy cites in his articles and book on the topic has been thoroughly debunked. In fact, Rolling Stone, which in 2005 published Kennedy’s first anti-vaccine article, in which he launched his conspiracy theory, contained a long line of serious errors, which the magazine has had to correct.

Yet he — along with other prominent (and discredited) anti-vaxxers — continues to spew those lies. And, as a result, many parents have become fearful and distrustful of childhood vaccines, a development that has led to a resurgence of dangerous diseases like measles and whooping cough (pertussis) — and yes, of children dying unnecessarily.

“The appointment of Robert Kennedy Jr to head up a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity is lot like putting a person who believes the world is flat in charge of the leading global geographic information system initiative,” stated Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, in a statement sent to MinnPost. “Mr. Kennedy’s appointment is potentially a dangerous decision if it sends a message to parents that vaccines are not safe and not necessary. If that happens, kids will get sick and even die because of the misinformation that will come from this commission.”

MinnPost also reached out to the Minnesota Department of Health, which offered this statement from Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger:

The overwhelming body of evidence shows vaccines are an enormously important public health tool. Vaccines have helped dramatically reduce the incidence of dangerous illnesses that were once commonplace, and they have helped greatly increase life expectancy in recent decades.

It’s important for all citizens to understand that the recommended schedules for vaccines have been scientifically evaluated to be the most effective and appropriate schedule to offer protection for children. Regarding specific questions about a purported link between vaccines and autism, that science is settled — there is no link. Any actions that continue to fuel this debate detract from the important work of understanding the actual cause or causes of autism.

Trump’s troubling views

The concern and outrage from the scientific community to Kennedy’s announcement that he would be heading a new commission on vaccines was immediate and unequivocal — and may explain why Trump’s transition team seemed to be backing away from it later in the day.

“The President-elect enjoyed his discussion with Robert Kennedy Jr. on a range of issues and appreciates his thoughts and ideas,” Trump transition spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in a statement. “The President-elect is exploring the possibility of forming a commission on autism, which affects so many families; however no decisions have been made at this time.” 

Trump, however, has long signaled his support of anti-vaxxers. Last summer, he caused jubilation among them when he met with Andrew Wakefield, the thoroughly discredited former British doctor who in many ways launched the anti-vaxxer movement with an unethical and fraudulent 1998 paper in the journal BMJ. (The paper has since been retracted, and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license.)

But Trump has also been explicit in expressing his support of the anti-vaxxer movement, as Washington Post reporters Abby Phillip, Lena H. Sun and Lenny Bernstein note:

In tweets as early as 2012, Trump expressed skepticism about vaccines, and in 2014 he said that “doctors lied” about vaccines. In other tweets, Trump has referred to vaccines as the cause of “doctor-inflicted autism.”

“Massive combined inoculations to small children is the cause for big increase in autism,” Trump said in an August 2012 tweet.

At the presidential debate in 2015, he claimed that his children had been vaccinated in small doses.

“I am totally in favor of vaccines, but I want smaller doses over a longer period of time,” Trump said. “Because you take a baby in, and I’ve seen it. I’ve had my children taken care of over a long period of time, over a two- or three-year period of time.”

Trump’s statements at the Republican debate in 2015 were denounced as “false” by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which released a strongly worded condemnation.

For the record: The alternative vaccine schedule cited by Trump has not been found to be more effective — and may even be dangerous because of the extended time the child remains unprotected against disease.

“Claims that vaccines are linked to autism, or are unsafe when administered according to the recommended schedule, have been disproven by a robust body of medical literature,” the AAP said in a statement released Tuesday in response to Kennedy’s announcement about his meeting with Trump. “Delaying vaccines only leaves a child at risk of disease.”

In that statement, the agency also reiterated that vaccines protect children’s health and save lives: “They prevent life-threatening diseases, including forms of cancer. Vaccines have been part of the fabric of our society for decades and are the most significant medical innovation of our time. Vaccines are safe. Vaccines are effective. Vaccines save lives.”

Other experts’ concerns

Here are a few of the many other comments given to reporters yesterday by alarmed infectious disease and autism experts in the wake of Kennedy’s announcement that he would be heading a new commission:

“That’s very frightening; it’s difficult to imagine anyone less qualified to serve on a commission for vaccine science,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, a nonprofit that works to control, treat and eliminate vaccine-preventable and neglected tropical diseases.

“The science is clear: Massive evidence showing no link between vaccines and autism, and as both a scientist who develops vaccines for poverty-related neglected diseases and the father of an adult daughter with autism, there’s not even any plausibility for a link,” Hotez continued. “Autism is a genetic condition.”

“Our nation’s public health will suffer if this nascent neo-antivaxxer movement is not stopped immediately,” he added.

“The scientific research has been done and the results are clear — vaccines do not cause autism,” Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation, said after Trump’s meeting. “Some people may choose not to believe the facts, but perpetuating a myth from the very highest levels poses a dangerous threat to public health.”

“It gives it a quasi-legitimacy that I frankly find frightening,” said William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University. He said Mr. Trump and Mr. Kennedy were being fooled by “long-discredited” theories about vaccines.

“This is going to be a sad struggle as we try to protect as many children as possible,” Dr. Schaffner said. 

FMI:  The Washington Post article offers a long and context-rich summary of the vaccine controversy, which is really a non-controversy as the science is well-established. Writing in StatNews, reporter Helen Branswell does a great job of explaining the debunked anti-vaccination theories espoused by Robert Kennedy Jr. and Donald Trump and “what the science actually says.”

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Colin Brownlow on 01/11/2017 - 11:13 am.

    God Help Us!

    What’s next – A committee lead by John Boehner to examine whether cigarettes are really a health problem. Or perhaps we should have a blue ribbon panel to show that the Apollo program was just a massive hoax.

    We now have a government lead by a science denying, factually challenged, conspiracy theorist who believes he’s the smartest kid in the class.

  2. Submitted by Kenneth Kjer on 01/11/2017 - 01:33 pm.

    Vaccines are dangerous and nobody tells you about it. In October of 2014 I got a flu vaccine, after about 3 weeks I started having problems walking. On January 17 2015, i was suddenly paralyzed from the waist down. The neurosurgeon who did surgery on me said it was caused by the flu shot. I was in the hospital for 31/2 months and am still in rehab and can’t walk without assistance. Nobody tell you that flu shots are dangerous. I am not alone in having this happen there are thousands of young kids and adults in the same boat as I am, One day healthy, soon after a vaccine paralyzed. If you google side effects of flu shots you can come up with all kinds of side effects up to and including GUILLAIN-BARRE Syndrome. All vaccines have side effects anybody who says differently is grossly misinformed.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/11/2017 - 02:03 pm.

      Your doctor is grossly misinformed

      I’m sorry about your health problems. But given the time lag, it’s extremely unlikely that your problems are related to the flu shot. And if you read actual medical research instead of Internet nonsense, you would understand it’s the flu and not the vaccine causing GBS.

    • Submitted by Paul tuite on 01/11/2017 - 04:52 pm.

      Guillan-Barre Syndrome

      1. There are some holes in the story or at least incomplete information
      2. Why if you have/had GBS did you have surgery?, i.e., GBS is not treated with surgery but typically people see a neurologist where a workup is commenced to look for associations between the infection campylobacter jejuni. GBS does not cause sudden paralysis – it is usually presents over a few hours to days. Sudden onset of paralysis suggest an acute spinal cord event, e.g., stroke of the cord or a traumatic cord injury. Treatment of GBS usually includes steroids or plasma exchange.
      3. The association between GBS and flu vaccines is a tenuous one but there was a slight increased risk in people given the flu vaccine that protected against swine flu (CDC data)
      4. CDC data does report 1/million risk of GBS after a flu vaccine but state that it is more likely people get GBS after getting the flu than with the vaccine
      5. If you have had GBS you should not get the flu vaccine.
      6. Look at the CDC website for additional data.
      7. There are risks for vaccines but collectively for our society the risks are greater if individuals are not vaccinated – the risk of course depends on the specific viral illness. For example ebola is deadly and so far it seems that there may be an effective vaccine for this.

  3. Submitted by Colin Brownlow on 01/11/2017 - 03:18 pm.

    Then your surgeon should be struck off

    This is yet another example of a an unverifiable anecdote, being used to contradict a vast array of scientific data, showing the safety of vaccines. There is no possible way your surgeon could have established a causal relationship between a vaccine administered 3 weeks prior and a suddenly occurring paralytic condition. I am truly sorry for your condition, but to make a blanket assertion on the basis of a single instance, with out any verifiable connection is simply irresponsible.

  4. Submitted by Kenneth Kjer on 01/11/2017 - 04:01 pm.

    For doubters

    It is a scientific fact that 1 in every 100,000 flu shots cause Guillon-Barre Syndrome which is what I had. The problem is they don’t warn in advance that it could happen to you.

    • Submitted by Paul tuite on 01/11/2017 - 04:57 pm.

      GBS data

      CDC data:

      It is estimated 3,000 to 6,000 people develop GBS each year on average, whether or not they received a vaccination. The increased risk was approximately 1 additional case of GBS per 100,000 people who got the swine flu vaccine. IN 2015 or 2016 you were not given the swine flu vaccine. The link between GBS and flu vaccination in other years is unclear, and if there is any risk for GBS after seasonal flu vaccines it is very small, about one in a million.

      Of course public opinion is a bit soft about the flu vaccine and whether to get it or not.

      However pediatric viral illnesses are another matter given the greater morbidity/mortality on the young and old or immunocompromised (e.g. cancer patients).

      So to extend a discussion about risks of flu vaccine into the pediatric realm is a real stretch and takes away from the public health matter that affects us all.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/11/2017 - 08:35 pm.


      It is absolutely NOT a scientific fact that the increase is CAUSED by the flu shot. You have misunderstood the data.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 01/11/2017 - 07:41 pm.

    We’ve ALREADY Had Epidemics of Childhood Diseases

    in areas where parents listened to the hyped B.S. about the dangers of vaccines.

    Children have DIED.

    Older people with compromised immune systems have died because they’ve been exposed to unvaccinated, infected kids.

    Guillon-Barre Syndrome has been around a very long time.

    Its symptoms range from mild to total paralysis necessitating breathing assistance.

    Most people (but not all) recover substantially if not completely.

    Why people get it is not altogether clear. The association with getting the flu shot or any other vaccine seems likely to be,…

    a case of mistaking correlation and causation.

    Perhaps as we develop greater accuity in evaluating our individual genomes,….

    we’ll discover why some of us are at risk for G/B (and any number of other less common diseases and conditions),…

    and how to avoid the factors that trigger the disease process in those individuals,…

    rather than discovering we’re prone to a particular disease or condition only when we get sick.

  6. Submitted by Kathryn Berg on 01/12/2017 - 04:42 pm.

    Safety Studies????

    Effectiveness of vaccines cannot be examined until safety is proven. There has not ever been a safety study conducted with a true placebo. The safety studies have only been done using another vaccine as a placebo, rather than an inert substance–in this case sterile saline.

    Until that study is done and they are proven safe by an independent researcher (not the CDC or a drug company) they do not pass muster in my mind or household.

    I’m sure some will say that it would be unethical to withhold a vaccination from a child in such a study. I say it is unethical to not do the study.

    • Submitted by Paul tuite on 01/12/2017 - 10:48 pm.


      We have extensive historical data as to the ramifications of childhood diseases if untreated or unprevented which have been used as an impetus for vaccines, i.e., polio = paralysis (temporary or permanent) or death in x % of the population. Vaccines substantially reduced the risk of polio over the historical data and the safety of the vaccines were tracked with risks per administered doses.

      Diphtheria can result in significant respiratory compromise

      Then there is tetanus and need I say more about the painful death due to trismus/tetany that can occur with this illness, e.g., 1-2/10 cases are fatal.

      Go down the line of each childhood illness and the historical data is there as well as the various ramifications of the illness on the children affected.

      Now look a the situation whereby children are not vaccinated — we can do this experiment if you wish and see the number of individuals who get sick, e.g., Measles outbreaks or meningococcal meningitis deaths.

      Additionally not vaccinating children who then get sick and who then expose and infect immunocompromised individuals with cancer or autoimmune conditions who then develop the illness who go own to die or become significantly unwell because they happened to be in the same doctor’s office, ED or even store as the affected child.

      So you can wait for a double blind placebo controlled trial which will not happen and as a result you are not thinking about the collective good of society.

      I would also remind you of the legal code that was established to quarantine some infections.

      Under 42 Code of Federal Regulations parts 70 and 71, CDC is authorized to detain, medIically examine, and release persons arriving into the United States and traveling between states who are suspected of carrying these communicable diseases: Cholera, Diphtheria, Infectious tuberculosis
      Plague, Smallpox, Yellow fever, Viral hemorrhagic fevers, Severe acute respiratory syndromes and
      Flu that can cause a pandemic.

      So for those choosing not to get the diphtheria vaccine and who become infected they be quarantined as this is a highly contagious infection that threatens the health of many.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/13/2017 - 05:24 am.

      Lemme guess

      YOU have just the researcher in mind, right? Seriously, there is gonna come a time when we lose patience with folks who refuse to accept valid scientific inquiry. Let me make it plain, parents who do not vaccinate (with certain excpetions for allergy), are a danger to their kids and to society as a whole. That they’ve been allowed to persist in their delusion relatively unmolested until now is a public disservice. It needs to end.

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