Trumping Science: Part III

Scientists criticize unconfirmed reports that President-elect Donald Trump has asked Robert Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine activist, to investigate vaccine safety.

Jan 12, 2017
Joshua A. Krisch

PIXABAY, DFUHLERTPresident-elect Donald Trump discussed vaccines with the prominent anti-vaccine activist Robert Kennedy Jr. on Tuesday (January 10) and, according to Kennedy, asked him to “chair a commission on vaccination safety and scientific integrity.”

Although the Trump transition team has since denied asking Kennedy to chair a commission, the rumor stoked fears among scientists of potential vaccine skepticism in the White House—fears that are not unfounded, given that Trump tweeted in 2014: “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes—AUTISM. Many such cases!”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) responded to the rumor of Kennedy’s appointment almost immediately. “Vaccines are safe. Vaccines are effective. Vaccines save lives,” Fernando Stein and Karen Remley of the AAP wrote in a statement. “We stand ready to work with the White House and the federal government to share the extensive scientific evidence demonstrating the safety of vaccines, including the recommended schedule.”

Others had more emotional responses. “Lord help us,” tweeted Bob Doherty, a vice president at the American College of Physicians. “And kids who will die by giving a platform & undeserved ‘credibility’ to #antivax movement.”

“That’s very frightening,” Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, told The Washington Post. “It’s difficult to imagine anyone less qualified to serve on a commission for vaccine science. . . . Our nation’s public health will suffer if this nascent neo-antivaxxer movement is not stopped immediately.”

Kennedy’s main gripe with vaccines has long been thimerosal, a mercury-containing compound once used as a preservative in many vaccines and, according to anti-vaccine activists, a cause of autism that the scientific community has conspired to cover up. Kennedy maintains that he is not opposed to vaccines—despite once comparing vaccines to a holocaust. "I am pro-vaccine," he told Science this week. "But we are also seeing an explosion in neurodevelopmental disorders and we ought to be able to do a cost-benefit analysis and see what’s causing them."

Despite such claims, no legitimate study has ever established a link between neurodevelopmental disorders and thimerosal. “The science has spoken. Thimerosal is a dead issue,” Paul Offit, a vaccine researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told U.S. News & World Report this week. “It is concerning,” he added. “You have as a President-elect a science denialist.”

Indeed, many scientists expressed concern that vaccine skepticism—a fringe, anti-science view—has now found support at the highest levels of government. “It gives it a quasi-legitimacy that I frankly find frightening,” William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, told The New York Times.

Daniel Summers, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, wrote in a commentary for The Washington Post that he fears what the potential appointment may indicate about the Trump administration’s attitude toward facts and science.

“The idea of creating a commission to study one of the most settled subjects in medicine confirms a gnawing fear I’ve had since the earliest days of Trump’s presidential campaign,” Summers wrote. Believing that vaccines cause autism “requires the rejection of a huge amount of medical science,” he wrote. “Not merely one study or two, but study after study after study.”

“One cannot believe that autism is related to vaccination without simultaneously indicting the overwhelming majority of physicians, nurses and other medical providers in this country,” Summers continued, adding: “Donald Trump just made my job harder.”