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

The outrage from the scientific community was immediate and unequivocal — and may explain why Trump’s transition team seemed to be backing away from it later in the day.

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

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.

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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.” 

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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.”

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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.”