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Friday, January 13, 2017

The Trump-RFK Story, Continued

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the discredited idea that vaccines cause autism. The story that Trump might appoint anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to head a presidential commission -- whether on vaccines or autism -- has provoked widespread reactions.

There are real harms to Kennedy’s rantings. His ongoing attack on the CDC—which he continues to villainize—has forced the government to keep funding studies to disprove his crackpot theories when we could be devoting that money to cancer or malaria research, or even studies on the safety of new vaccines coming onto the market. Kennedy’s public scare tactics also prevent honest researchers from speaking openly about gaps in the data, because they know Kennedy will mischaracterize all requests for more data as evidence of a government conspiracy to kill your children. Giving him an official position will force honest scientific debate further into the shadows—exactly the situation Kennedy claims to be fighting.

When it comes to his views on vaccine safety, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is dishonest, uninformed, insane, or some combination of them. His refusal to accept medical evidence has put children at risk, and giving him an official position will … you know what? It’s so obvious, it’s not even worth writing. It also doesn’t matter. Neither Trump nor Kennedy care about facts.
Brandy Zadrozny reports at The Daily Beast:
“We’ve already got the National Vaccine Advisory Committee, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee that coordinates the efforts of HHS agencies,” said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a contributor to The Daily Beast.

“I suspect Trump doesn’t know it,” Offit said. “Or he thinks [the existing committees] are part of a massive conspiracy to hide the truth.”

Both are fair guesses. In 2014, Trump tweeted, “I am being proven right about massive vaccinations—the doctors lied. Save our children & their future.” And his new friend Kennedy certainly sees a plot in the current committees. The environmentalist-cum-conspiracy theorist has compared health officials on these boards to Nazi concentration camp guards, and widespread vaccinations to the Holocaust.
Celine Gounder writes at The Guardian:
Trump and others have advocated delaying and spacing out vaccinations. But it’s important to understand that vaccination schedules are based on our scientific understanding of the immune system and disease transmission. A mother passes antibodies to her baby through the placenta as well as breast milk, thereby protecting her child against some infections. These antibodies don’t last forever. If you vaccinate a baby too early, the mother’s antibodies prevent the vaccine from taking effect. But if you wait too long to vaccinate, you leave the child unprotected. For example, studies have shown that by six months of age, over 95% of infants have lost the protection of their mother’s antibodies to measles.
At least until now, we’ve reaped the benefits of high vaccination rates: far less measles than in other parts of the world. When a disease becomes less common, the probability that you’ll come into contact with it goes down, actually giving us more wriggle room in our vaccination schedule. The measles vaccine also works a bit better if you wait until 12 months of age. But if you wait to vaccinate against measles until you’ve got a walking, talking toddler who’s around other kids, you’re putting that child at risk. Moreover, in the past two decades, more and more parents have chosen not to immunize their children, so much so that vaccination rates in some parts of the country are well below those seen in much poorer developing countries.
Ford Vox writes at CNN:
Government ultimately holds quite limited authority over vaccinations. None of us is outright forced to vaccinate; diehards can find alternative schools and alternative careers. And when a state senator in California drafted a bill requiring vaccinations for schoolchildren, the anti-vaxxers attempted to recall him.

That said, Donald Trump's candidacy and successful election lifted the lid on a whole array of deplorable, but surprisingly widely held beliefs in our country, ranging from white supremacy to denigration of the disabled. It now appears his nods to the fringe made during the campaign may well translate into official acts and policies.
Presidential commissions are serious affairs that address issues of major national importance. Creating such a panel on autism with a leading vaccine skeptic would do enormous damage, regardless of what the commission concludes.
If the fringe on vaccines becomes mainstream, our health will be in grave danger.