President-elect Donald Trump met Tuesday with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a skeptic of mandatory public vaccination policies that have helped eradicate diseases like smallpox and measles in the U.S.
The nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy came to Trump Tower in Manhattan “to discuss the issues related to vaccines and immunizations,” said incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on a conference call with reporters. Kennedy is a lifelong Democrat and environmental activist, so the previously unannounced meeting with Trump, a pro-drilling Republican, seemed unusual.
But Kennedy is also one of the nation’s most prominent vaccine skeptics, and a champion of the debunked theory that preservatives in vaccines cause neurological disorders, including autism. Kennedy even penned a book in 2014 called “Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak: The Evidence Supporting the Immediate Removal of Mercury ― a Known Neurotoxin ― from Vaccines.”
Public health groups, including the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have said thimerosal is safe for use as a preservative in vaccines, citing piles of scientific evidence.
Kennedy has also taken his case to Congress, and lobbied in favor of state policies that give parents “philosophical exemptions” from state requirements that public school children be immunized against various diseases. Like Trump, Kennedy downplays his skepticism by saying he is “pro-vaccine” and noting that all six of his children were vaccinated.
But the ominous warnings and conspiracy theories about vaccines that people like Trump and Kennedy have spread in recent years provoked fear among parents, and may have contributed to falling immunization rates in some communities, and the subsequent outbreak of diseases like measles.
Trump has long been a proponent of the discredited theory that vaccines cause autism. During a Republican primary debate in 2015, he made a clear connection between immunizations and autism. He told the story of an employee whose “beautiful child [who] went to have the vaccine and came back and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”
The supposed link between vaccines and autism, in which thimerosal is a chief culprit, has been studied and debunked so many times that for the link to exist, the medical and public health community would have to be engaged in a coverup conspiracy of global proportions.
Trump still claimed to be “totally in favor” of vaccination, but his many statements questioning the safety of vaccines suggest that he is actually not in favor.
In 2012, he tweeted that the current vaccine schedule for young children puts them at risk for autism. “Stop these massive doses immediately. Go back to single, spread out shots! What do we have to lose.”
Public health experts say delaying shots just puts kids at risk. “Infants and young children who follow immunization schedules that spread out shots — or leave out shots — are at risk of developing diseases during the time that shots are delayed,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website.
Trump tweeted in 2014 that he knows better than doctors and epidemiologists.
“I am being proven right about massive vaccinations—the doctors lied,” he said. “Save our children & their future.”
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