Will Donald Trump revisit discredited vaccine theories?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Listen to story

Download this story 0MB

Outspoken vaccination critic Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. said Tuesday that President-elect Donald Trump has asked him to chair a commission on vaccine safety. But a Trump spokeswoman later said the president-elect is only exploring the possibility of forming a "commission on autism."

Speaking to reporters after meeting with Trump Tuesday, Kennedy said the president-elect "has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it," according to several media reports. "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."

Kennedy has promoted a long-debunked theory linking vaccines to autism. Trump has said that he is in favor of vaccines, but has also promulgated the discredited vaccines-autism link. 

Trump met in August with Andrew Wakefield, a former doctor whose medical license was revoked after he published a false study claiming the measles, mumps and rubella shot causes autism.

After a flurry of news reports about Kennedy's remarks Tuesday, the Trump team was walking back the message.

Trump is "exploring the possibility of forming a commission on autism," presidential transition spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in a statement. "However no decisions have been made at this time," she added. "The President-elect looks forward to continuing the discussion about all aspects of Autism with many groups and individuals."

Regarding Trump's conversation with Kennedy, Hicks said the president-elect "enjoyed his discussion with Robert Kennedy Jr. on a range of issues and appreciates his thoughts and ideas."

KPCC was unable to reach Kennedy for a response to Hicks' statement.

Just the prospect of Trump asking Kennedy to head up a panel that would revisit the vaccination issue has rattled experts.

"It's absolutely terrible," UCLA professor Dr. James Cherry said of Kennedy's possible involvement. "Everything that he has written is wrong."

Upon hearing that Trump might create a new commission, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement Tuesday rebutting Trump's and Kennedy's theories. 

"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," said the Academy's president Dr. Fernando Stein and executive vice president Karen Remley.

"Delaying vaccines only leaves a child at risk of disease," they said. "Vaccines keep communities healthy, and protect some of the most vulnerable in our society, including the elderly, and children who are too young to be vaccinated or have compromised immune systems."

News of Kennedy's possible appointment thrilled Marisa Davis, a mother of two from Altadena who has concerns about a possible autism link. 

"This is incredible," said Davis, who also has questions about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended vaccination schedule. "It might just be the catalyst for change people have been waiting for."

Kennedy has championed the discredited theory that thimerosal, an anti-bacterial agent found in vaccines until 2001, was dangerous and linked to autism. He wrote an article about the supposed connection in 2005 for Salon and Rolling Stone; Salon eventually retracted the story and Rolling Stone deleted it. Kennedy also edited a 2014 book pushing the same belief.

Trump has been raising questions about vaccines since at least 2012.

"Massive combined inoculations to small children is the cause for big increase in autism," he tweeted in August 2012.

"I'm in favor of vaccines – do 'em over a longer period of time, same amount, just in little sections, and I think you're going to see a big impact on autism," Trump said during a GOP debate in September 2015. He claimed he vaccinated his own children in small doses.

Tuesday's developments spurred Cherry to become reflective.

"We've done so much good with vaccines; I mean, it's just absolutely incredible," he said.

Cherry, distinguished research professor at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, began listing every vaccine and how many lives have been saved since it was developed, starting with Haemophilus influenzae type b, or Hib.

"Back when I was in training, one in 500 children had invasive disease due to that bacteria in the first five years of life," said Cherry, who received his medical degree in 1957. "Many of them got meningitis and those who had meningitis, about 10 percent died."

"Ever since 1980," he added, "our [medical] residents haven't even seen a case, [the vaccine has] been so successful."