For years Donald Trump has been publicly pushing the notion, which the scientific community has widely discredited, that vaccines cause autism. He did it again at Wednesday’s GOP presidential debate, telling a story about a child who he said got vaccinated, then “got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”
But away from the spotlight, Trump has put his name and money behind an autism advocacy group that firmly rejects any such link.
Trump has hosted fund-raisers for Autism Speaks at his luxury hotel in New York’s SoHo neighborhood and his private seaside club in Palm Beach. In 2005, contestants on his reality TV show “The Apprentice” designed an event for the nonprofit. Trump has repeatedly encouraged his 4 million Twitter followers to support and contribute to Autism Speaks.
And the Donald J. Trump Foundation has donated $50,000 to the organization over the past decade.
Autism Speaks backs the scientific consensus that vaccines do not cause autism. The original 1998 study linking vaccines to autism was retracted by its journal, The Lancet, in 2010 and declared “bogus” by the British Medical Journal. And many subsequent studies, including one from the Journal of the American Medical Association in April that looked at 96,000 US children, have found no association between vaccines and autism.
Autism Speaks, which describes itself as “the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization,” released a statement on its website: “Over the last two decades, extensive research has asked whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism. The results of this research are clear: Vaccines do not cause autism.”
Trump long declared publicly — as he did in flamboyant fashion at the debate — that the current system of giving children multiple vaccines in the space of a few years can cause autism.
In October 2012, he even called for a march on Washington to push that view.
“If you spread single doses out over a short period of years, autism would be greatly reduced,” Trump tweeted on April 9, 2012. “It’s just my opinion, but I know I’m right.”
Public health officials, however, say delaying vaccines makes young children vulnerable to harmful illnesses such as the measles.
Trump repeated his view at Wednesday’s debate and added the anecdote about an unnamed toddler. That soundbite zipped around the Internet on Thursday and prompted the scientific community to again seek to reassure parents that vaccines are safe.
Trump’s visibility on this issue has put Autism Speaks in a potentially awkward position. The organization’s statement on Thursday called for autism to “remain at the forefront of the national dialogue.” Trump’s name was not mentioned.
Trump’s campaign did not return calls Thursday. Autism Speaks would not comment beyond the statement.
Trump’s donations are a drop in the bucket for Autism Speaks — which raised more than $63 million in 2013 alone. But the organization has nurtured ties with other wealthy civic and business leaders as well. The board of directors includes fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, as well as CEOs, presidents, and vice-presidents of companies including PayPal, Ford Motor Co., and Goldman Sachs.
“What organization — be it a cancer society, autism, you name it — wouldn’t welcome the support of someone like Donald Trump,” says Gary Mayerson, a New York lawyer who sits on the board of Autism Speaks.
Mayerson, who specializes in representing people with autism, believes that vaccines save lives — and is no Trump supporter.
But Trump’s contributions to autism advocacy have won Mayerson’s respect, even if they disagree on the issue.
“I’m not a scientist, he’s not scientist,” Mayerson said. “I don’t know that anybody but a scientist can really opine about the causal connection.”
Even the two medical doctors on stage with Trump at the debate — candidates Ben Carson and Rand Paul — seemed reluctant to unequivocally back the public health recommendations about childhood vaccinations. The anti-vaccination community is small but vocal and the issue has ignited pockets of voters on both the left and the right.
Eric Boodman can be reached at eric.boodman@statnews .com. Follow him on Twitter @ericboodman. Ike Swetlitz can be reached at ike.swetlitz@ statnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ikeswetlitz. Follow STAT on Twitter: @statnews.