On 10 January 2017, president-elect Donald Trump met with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an outspoken critic of vaccines and an adherent of the thoroughly discredited link between autism and vaccines. Speaking to reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower after the meeting, Kennedy said that ““[Trump] asked me to chair a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity […] and I said I would.”
Further elaborating on the nature of their discussions, Kennedy stated:
President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it [… ] His opinion doesn’t matter but the science does matter and we ought to be reading the science and we ought to be debating the science. […]
Everybody ought to be able to be assured that the vaccines that we have — [Trump is] very pro-vaccine, as am I — but they’re as safe as they possibly can be.
The claim that either Kennedy (who once compared alleged damage caused by vaccinations to the Holocaust) or Trump (who has repeatedly suggested in debates and on Twitter that there is a link between autism and childhood vaccinations) is pro-vaccine is questionable, and reports of the offer led many in the scientific community to object vehemently to the possible appointment.
Later that day, the Trump transition team issued a statement suggesting that Trump was merely “exploring the possibility” of engaging Kennedy to chair a commission on vaccine safety, while also suggesting that Trump was thinking about forming a commission specifically on autism.
Kennedy became a leading figure in the anti-vaccine movement with a controversial — and later retracted — piece titled “Deadly Immunity,” published in print by Rolling Stone and online by Salon.com in 2005. That article attempted to draw a link between a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal found in some vaccines and the development of autism in children.
That story, which was amended with a lengthy set of corrections before ultimately being retracted in 2011, alleged a widespread effort by both the government and the pharmaceutical industry to hide the dangers of thimerosal (which is no longer used in American childhood vaccines) in order to further drug company profits, limit government liability, and assure government control over credibility on the issue. In that article, Kennedy stated:
I devoted time to study this issue because I believe that this is a moral crisis that must be addressed. If, as the evidence suggests, our public-health authorities knowingly allowed the pharmaceutical industry to poison an entire generation of American children, their actions arguably constitute one of the biggest scandals in the annals of American medicine.
Much of the evidence Kennedy cited in that piece was widely criticized as cherry picked, misleading, or unscientific in nature — actions that could reasonably be interpreted as betraying a lack of “scientific integrity.” In an 11 January 2017 article, science writer Seth Mnookin, one of the leading voices arguing for that article’s retraction and the author of a book on the vaccine controversy, pointed out that many of the quotes Kennedy used were dramatically altered so that they seemed to support his thesis:
Kennedy relied on the 286-page transcript of the Simpsonwood meeting to corroborate his allegations—and wherever the transcript diverged from the story he wanted to tell, he simply cut and pasted until things came out right. Again and again, he used participants’ warnings about the reckless manipulation of scientific data by people with ulterior motives to do the very thing they were afraid would happen. […]
Even more egregious was Kennedy’s slicing and dicing of a lengthy statement by the World Health Organization’s John Clements. In this instance, Kennedy transposed sentences and left out words. […]
In the overall scheme of the piece, that type of quote massaging was considered so insignificant that it didn’t warrant inclusion in the more than five hundred words’ worth of “notes,” “clarifications,” and “corrections” that were eventually appended to the piece. […] Among the issues that were addressed were incorrect attributions, inaccuracies about which vaccines contained thimerosal at different points in time, a misrepresentation of the number of shots children had received in the 1980s, and a false claim about a scientist having a patent on the measles vaccine.
Some of the scientific evidence Kennedy provided (e.g., an exposé written by an investigative journalist who attempted and failed to locate the predicted number of autistic members of the (allegedly unvaccinated) Amish community, and a claim that autism rates have dropped since thimerosal was removed from vaccines) were either highly dubious or downright false.
Trump, for his part, has made numerous statements that suggest he is willing to indulge these discredited claims. In a 23 August 2012 tweet that leaves little room for interpretation, he stated that “Massive combined inoculations to small children is the cause for big increase in autism …” And during a 16 September 2015 Republican presidential debate, Trump said:
Autism has become an epidemic. 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. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time. Because you take a baby in — and I’ve seen it — and I’ve seen it, and I had my children taken care of over a long period of time, over a two or three year period of time.
Despite the fact that it appears as though the transition team is either walking back their offer to give Kennedy a committee or, perhaps, that Kennedy misinterpreted the nature of their conversation, medical groups have expressed concern over Trump’s meeting with Kennedy. On 10 January 2017, Dr. Patrice Harris, Chair of the American Medical Association Board of Trustees, issued this statement:
The American Medical Association (AMA) fully supports the overwhelming evidence that vaccines are among the most effective and safest interventions to both prevent individual illness and protect the health of the public. We are deeply concerned that creating a new commission on vaccine safety would cause unnecessary confusion and adversely impact parental decision-making and immunization practices. The United States has a long-standing system for ensuring the ongoing development, safety, and efficacy of vaccines. The AMA will continue its work to promote public understanding and confidence in the use of vaccines in order to prevent resurgence in vaccine-preventable illnesses and deaths.
Anti-vaccine movements have been growing in the United States, with well-documented negative results. An outbreak of measles at California’s Disneyland resort in 2015, for example, was linked to populations of electively unvaccinated schoolchildren.
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