Editorial: Alleged link between vaccines, autism a contagious lie

By The Herald Editorial Board

Science is not proving to be one of President-elect Donald Trump’s strong suits.

Along with doubting the overwhelming preponderance of evidence regarding climate change — maintaining instead that it’s a hoax concocted by the Chinese — Trump has long been in the camp, which includes such luminaries of scientific thought as actors Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, that believes that autism is caused by vaccines.

It’s a dangerous belief for children when fear rather than sound medical advice drives a parent to withhold vaccinations from their kids. But it’s a belief with potentially disastrous outcomes for the nation’s public health when its held by the nation’s president.

Trump, according to a report Tuesday in The Washington Post, has asked Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who holds the same discredited beliefs and has worked to roll back child vaccination laws, to act as chairman of a new commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity.

“President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies, and he has questions about it,” Kennedy said in the Post’s report. “His opinion doesn’t matter, but the science does matter, and we ought to be reading the science, and we ought to be debating the science.”

The science does matter, but Kennedy, Trump and others continue to ignore it, instead allowing themselves to be influenced by anecdotes and debunked research.

The most influential study to allege a link between vaccines and autism was discredited years ago and revealed as a fraud that cost the lead researcher his medical credentials. As told in a 2015 Post story that followed Trump’s vaccines claims during a Republican presidential candidate debate, Trump latched on to a 1998 study by researcher Andrew Wakefield that was published in The Lancet, a well-respected medical journal, that linked the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella to autism.

The Lancet dramatically retracted the study in 2010 when it discovered that Wakefield had misreported elements of his research and had been funded by attorneys representing parents who had sued vaccine companies. Another medical journal a year later discovered that some children in the Wakefield study weren’t autistic and others had shown developmental issues before being vaccinated.

Those continuing to blame vaccines will point to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to ask vaccine makers to remove thimerosal, a anti-fungal agent that contains trace amounts of mercury, from vaccines as a precautionary measure. It has been removed from childhood vaccines but is still used in some flu vaccines. The CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Institute of Medicine, hold that there is no evidence to support a link between thimerosal and brain disorders, including autism, a Post profile of Kennedy reported in 2014.

Like other lies, the one linking vaccines to autism has persisted. With harmful effects.

Reluctance to vaccinate children likely has contributed to a recent outbreak of mumps in Washington state. The most recent count by the state Department of Health showed a total of 151 cases in the state, 123 of which were in King County. The state health department urged parents to immunize their children in late December.

Measles outbreaks also had been reported in recent years, including 667 nationwide including 383 people among Ohio’s Amish communities in 2014, and a multi-state outbreak in 2015 linked to Disneyland vistors.

There was better news this fall when the World Health Organization declared that after more than a year of no reports in the Americas, measles had been eliminated in this hemisphere. But, while eliminated in the Americas, measles persists in other parts of the globe and remains a threat to return, particularly if lax attitudes about immunizations are not challenged.

The CDC, the WHO, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Institutes of Health, the Institute of Medicine and leading medical universities urge childhood vaccinations and have found no link between vaccines and autism. The advocacy group, Autism Speaks, says instead that autism likely has no one cause but that medical science has identified genetics and environmental factors before and during birth that can negatively influence early brain development.

Unless Kennedy truly is willing to let science direct the findings of the committee he will chair rather than his and Trump’s opinions, nothing but more public fear and bad decisions will follow.

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