President-elect Donald Trump opened up a new front in his war on science last week. When he appointed — or seemed to appoint — Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to chair a panel on vaccine safety, he sent an alarming signal to scientists, parents, and just about anyone else who values a reasonable standard of public health. The message? That decades of evidence-based research don’t matter as much as conspiracy theories and junk science pushed by celebrities.
And Kennedy is certainly that. The nephew of President John F. Kennedy and son of slain presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, he is the beneficiary of a half-century of Democratic hagiography that presumably adds a sheen of respectability to the issue that antivaxxers like Jenny McCarthy do not. But he is utterly unfit to lead an effort that is utterly unnecessary.
Improbably, the antivaccination movement took off after the publication of a single, small study in a British medical journal in 1998 that linked the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella to autism. The study was roundly debunked and retracted in 2010 after the journal editors discovered that the author, Andrew Wakefield, had been funded by attorneys for parents pursuing lawsuits against vaccine companies. Wakefield himself was found guilty of fraud and stripped of his medical license.
Kennedy joined the antivaxxer ranks more than a decade ago, fomenting unwarranted panic as he testified in state after state against vaccines. But he and Trump are ignoring the broad scientific consensus: Our national vaccination program is safe for children. In suggesting a link to autism, they are also confusing causation and correlation. Rates of autism spectrum disorder have been rising since the 1960s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but researchers don’t fully know whether that rise is due to more awareness and diagnosis or to an actual increase in cases. There is no evidence that the rise is linked to childhood inoculations against infectious disease — or, for that matter, to the Internet, seat belts, diet soda, or the many other things that have become more common since the 1960s.
In fact, vaccines undergo rigorous clinical trials and require approval by the US Food and Drug Administration. Several federal advisory panels, made up of doctors and scientists, oversee supplies and monitor adverse reactions. And it’s important to remember that the vaccination of one person also protects the community at large, through a principle known as herd immunity. When a significant number of people have gotten shots to prevent, say, measles, it also protects individuals who, due to preexisting medical conditions, cannot be vaccinated at all, simply because they are less likely to be exposed.
Trump’s misleading pronouncements would be less alarming if the consequences were not so potentially dire. Measles can cause deadly health complications, including pneumonia and encephalitis, and weakened herd immunity is a public health threat. Although health officials announced years ago that the disease had largely been eliminated in the US, there has been an uptick in cases in recent years, according to the CDC – in part because of outbreaks in communities where people have not gotten vaccinated. Governor Jerry Brown of California had the right idea when he signed legislation outlawing personal and religious exemptions from school vaccinations, after a mass outbreak at Disneyland in 2015.
Perhaps Trump’s stance on vaccines shouldn’t come as a surprise. During the 2016 campaign, he called global warming a hoax. But the stakes are exponentially higher as he assumes the presidency. In addition to the real risk of harming public health, he’s making it more likely that medical science will follow climate science into the maw of our divided politics, potentially driving Republicans to reject vaccines out of partisan loyalties. It’s worth remembering that another Republican in the White House, Abraham Lincoln, signed a law in 1863 creating the National Academy of Sciences because he recognized the economic and social value of scientific progress, even during the depths of the Civil War. By rejecting decades of settled science, and lending credence to fraudulent theories, Trump does a disservice to the party of Lincoln, and to a nation that expects better.