On Tuesday, Donald Trump asked Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a vaccine critic who once wrote a book arguing that flu vaccines are linked to autism, to chair a committee on vaccine safety.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at Trump Tower on Tuesday. Image: Getty Images
Kennedy has accused government scientists of being “involved in a massive fraud” to cover up safety concerns associated with vaccines. In case it isn’t obvious, appointing a noted anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist to lead a team responsible for “vaccine safety and scientific integrity” is a very, very dumb thing to do. “I said I would,” Kennedy told reporters today when asked how he responded to the US president-elect’s job offer.
This is not the first time that Trump has entertained the completely whackadoodle, fringe anti-vaccine movement. Over the winter, Trump met with Andrew Wakefield, the discredited researcher whose launched the anti-vaxxer movement with a debunked study suggesting that a vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella could cause autism.
After that meeting, Wakefield told STAT News that Trump was “extremely interested, genuinely interested, and open-minded on this issue”.
Let’s be clear here: There is no real “debate” on whether vaccines cause autism. They do not. Wakefield’s original study was thoroughly debunked and retracted, and no work since has supported it.
Nonetheless, in recent years, the anti-vaccine movement has spread. And while it’s unlikely that Trump could do much to affect the availability of vaccines at a policy level, having support for the anti-vaccine movement in the Oval Office is sure to elevate the cause. That could have very real public health consequences. Already, as the movement has spread, we have seen a resurgence of diseases that were once no longer a problem in America. The autumn of 2015 saw the first death from measles in the United States in 12 years. That same year, vaccine refusal helped spur a measles outbreak at Disneyland.
Vaccines avert between two and three million deaths annually, according to the World Health Organisation. But keeping diseases like measles under control requires that the vast majority of children continue to get immunised. Support for an anti-vaccine platform in the White House could literally mean that people die.