President Trump’s Advocacy of the Debunked Link Between Vaccines and Autism

On March 28, 2014, more than a year before Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States, he tweeted: “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!”

Although Trump’s anti-vaccine sentiment has not been a secret, he nonetheless took the medical community by surprise when, on January 10, 2017, just days before he was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, he met with anti-vaccine activist, Robert Kennedy Jr., at Trump Tower in Manhattan, where, per Kennedy, Trump asked him to head a new government commission on vaccine safety (1).

Kennedy claimed that representatives of Trump’s transition team approached him before the meeting to ask whether he would be interested in participating in a vaccine inquiry. Moreover, he stated that Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon; Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway; and then Vice President-elect Mike Pence also attended the meeting. A few hours later, a spokesperson for Trump confirmed that Trump was “exploring the possibility of forming a committee on autism,” but added that no final decisions had been made (1).

The “possibility” that Trump might form a committee on vaccines and autism (irrespective of who heads it) raises fears in the medical community that, by doing so, Trump would give a sense of legitimacy to the discredited anti-vaccine point of view, which, in turn, would give many parents misinformation regarding the crucial need to get their children vaccinated. Vaccines are safe and effective. What’s more, they have prevented more human (especially childhood) suffering and death than any other measure in history! If Kennedy’s panel (or any other action by Trump, which reflected his “alternative” view of vaccines) led to even a small decrease in vaccination rates, the result would be the otherwise preventable deaths of children, including infants too young to be vaccinated (2), as well as the elderly.

The idea that vaccines might cause autism first gained widespread attention in 1998 after the British medical journal, The Lancet, published a study involving only 12 children, by former British surgeon, Andrew Wakefield, which claimed to find a link between the measles vaccine and autism. However, an investigation by the British Medical Council later found that data in The Lancet paper was fraudulent. Moreover, Wakefield’s study received financial support from lawyers representing parents of autistic children; a conflict of interest that Wakefield did not disclose. The British Medical Journal took the extraordinary step of publishing a report in which it concluded that Wakefield’s study was not simply bad science, but a deliberate and elaborate fraud. The Lancet paper was retracted and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license. A subsequent large scale study by the U.S. Institute of Medicine, involving more than a half million children, found no evidence whatsoever of any connection between vaccines and autism (2).

Some individuals, including Kennedy, believe that thimerosal (a mercury compound once added to some vaccines as a preservative) is the link between vaccines and autism. However, thimerosal was added only to killed vaccines (e.g., the vaccines against diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus), whereas the MMR vaccine—the original source of the vaccine controversy—is a live vaccine. What’s more, all vaccinations in the United States have been thimerosal-free since 2001, while new cases of childhood autism have not abated since then. Furthermore, extensive studies by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and by the US Institute of Medicine, could not find any connection between thimerosal and autism (2). At first, Kennedy completely ignored these studies, but later asserted that these government agencies were participating in a major cover-up (3).

Considering: 1) the overwhelming scientific evidence against the anti-vaccine point of view, 2) the extensive expert advice available to Trump from physicians and biomedical scientists both within and outside the government and, 3) the unceasing federal oversight of vaccine safety (by the both the CDC and the FDA), why would Trump reopen this issue at all, especially via a panel headed by a layperson, when doing so under any conditions will undermine public health? Is it to distract the public’s attention from more politically troubling issues, or is it merely a play to his base, or does Trump actually believe what he says?

Ben Carson, a physician and former presidential aspirant, and now Trump’s pick to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, framed the vaccine issue as a matter of government infringement on the peoples’ liberties; a point of view that resonates with the political right (see Aside 1.), as does Trump’s bizarre view, as tweeted in 2012, that: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.”

[Aside 1: Carson, a physician by background, ignores the crucial concept of herd immunity. People who cannot get vaccinated (e.g., young infants, pregnant women, children suffering from leukemia or other immune deficiencies) are yet protected from measles by herd immunity; that is, the immunity in the entire population that results when a high enough percentage of individuals has been vaccinated. When that level of compliance is attained, there are not enough susceptible individuals in the population to sustain the chain of transmission. Thus, vulnerable individuals, who cannot be vaccinated, pay the price for vaccine noncompliance by those who opt out.]

What might Trump’s position on vaccines portend for those biomedical scientists and physicians who would publicly oppose his anti-vaccine sentiments? For a hint, this past December Trump’s transition team asked the DOE for a list of its employees who worked on climate change, or who had attended climate change meetings, thereby raising the specter of repercussions against those who do not adhere to Trump’s stance on the climate change issue. Would the prospect of such repercussions undermine the willingness of physicians and scientists to speak out against Trump’s stance on vaccines?

This past week, Tom Price, Trump’s pick to head the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), rejected the claim that vaccines are linked to autism. He did so during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, thus offering some hope that the Trump White House might not pursue its debunked stance on vaccines. Nonetheless, bearing in mind Trump’s unpredictability, and his alternative view of reality regarding other issues, scientific and otherwise, scientists must remain vigilant, and be willing to speak out against policy decisions based on ideological political agendas or “alternative” views of reality, rather than sound scientific evidence.

“Scientists, medics and commentators who have fought vaccine disinformation in the past must take a deep breath and return to the fray. There is no need to wait for this commission to be announced officially. There is no need to wait until it issues its findings. There is no cause to be surprised if it shows little regard for science — or even if it targets scientists who speak out in favor of vaccination… Lives are at stake (4).”

References:

  1. Shear MD, Haberman M, and Belluck P, Anti-Vaccine Activist Says Trump Wants Him to Lead Panel on Immunization Safety. NY Times January 11, 2017.
  2.  Andrew Wakefield and the Measles Vaccine Controversy, Posted on the blog February 9, 2015.
  3. Mnookin S, How Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Distorted Vaccine Science, Scientific American, STAT on January 11, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/.../how-robert-f-kennedy-jr-distorted-vaccine-scie…
  4. 4. Trump’s vaccine-commission idea is biased and dangerous.  Nature 541:259, 2017. doi:10.1038/541259a

Addendum: The following is from the January 11, 2017 NY Times report (1).

Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Kennedy have described themselves as “pro-vaccine.” But they have repeatedly expressed concerns about what they claim is a link between vaccines and the development of autism. At a Republican presidential debate in September 2015, Mr. Trump described knowing people personally who had seen a cause and effect.

“Autism has become an epidemic,” Mr. Trump said in the debate. “Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of control.”

“I am totally in favor of vaccines,” he added. “But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time. Same exact amount, but you take this little beautiful baby, and you pump — I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child, and we’ve had so many instances, people that work for me.”

Mr. Trump has also repeatedly used Twitter to spread his concerns about the safety of vaccines. In particular, he has often raised doubts about giving children vaccines in a single large dose rather than several smaller ones… Mr. Kennedy said Mr. Trump “believes in those anecdotal stories” about the dangers of vaccines. He said the president-elect “says if you have enough anecdotal stories saying the exact same thing, that you can’t dismiss the validity.”

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