Paul Offit: Trump Needs Vaccine Experts, Not Conspiracy Theorists

Trump could have turned to any number of reputable experts to learn about vaccine safety. Instead, he went straight for the fringe.

01.11.17 6:26 PM ET

Imagine you’re the president-elect of the United States and you wanted to know more about vaccine safety. Who would you turn to?

You could turn to Nancy Messonier, who heads a team of researchers at the country’s leading center for the study of vaccines: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Or you could turn to any one of a number of academic researchers who are involved with the Vaccine Safety DataLink, a computer-linked system of medical records that can determine vaccine-safety issues in real time as new vaccines are first used by American children. Or you could turn to a variety of leading experts, like Stanley Plotkin, who is the country’s (and the world’s) foremost authority on vaccines and has written the definitive textbook on the subject. Or you could turn to Walter Orenstein, former director of the National Immunization Program who is now at Emory University, and another worldwide leader. Or you could turn to Kathryn Edwards, a Vanderbilt vaccine researcher who has devoted her life to vaccine-safety issues and to the health and well-being of children. 

Donald Trump, unfortunately, didn’t turn to any of these groups or individuals. Rather he turned to two other people.

First, he turned to Andrew Wakefield, the British researcher who in 1998 published a paper in the Lancet claiming that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. In August 2016, Trump met with Wakefield. At the time they met, a British journalist named Brian Deer had already found that Wakefield’s paper had misrepresented clinical data, biological data, and the sources of funding for the work. For these reasons, the Lancet retracted the paper and the General Medical Council in England stripped Wakefield of his license to practice medicine.

During the two decades following Wakefield’s publication, 17 studies performed in England, Finland, Poland, Japan, Australia, Denmark, and the United States examined the incidence of autism in millions of children who either did or didn’t receive MMR. All of these studies found the same thing. Children who had received the MMR vaccine weren’t more likely to develop autism than those who hadn’t received it. Andrew Wakefield was wrong. So why is he still claiming that the MMR vaccine causes autism? Apparently, at least according to Wakefield, there has been a vast international conspiracy to hide the truth—a conspiracy that involves hundreds of researchers in seven countries on three continents, all deeply in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry.

On Jan. 10, 2017, Donald Trump then turned to one more person for information about vaccine safety: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Kennedy believes that thimerosal, an ethyl-mercury-containing preservative that hasn’t been used in vaccines given to young children since 2001, is causing severe developmental delays including autism. Since Kennedy first made this claim, seven studies performed in Denmark, England, Canada, and the United States have examined children who received thimerosal-containing vaccines or vaccines that didn’t contain thimerosal. The incidence of autism was the same in both groups. Nonetheless, in 2014 Kennedy published a book titled, Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak—an ironic title, given that the science already had spoken. So why does Kennedy also persist? The answer is the same: conspiracy. The thimerosal-causes-autism conspiracy, however, isn’t as vast as the MMR conspiracy; this one involves researchers in only four countries on two continents.

Presidents and presidents-elect aren’t supposed to know everything. But they are supposed to surround themselves with people who can direct them to the experts, which in this case shouldn’t include conspiracy theorists promoting discredited beliefs. Donald Trump is a lucky man. He is in a position to avail himself of the best information this country has to offer. He should do it. Because if he doesn’t, we will continue to see children suffer and die from vaccine-preventable diseases—children who are counting on their leaders to make the right decisions.   

Paul A. Offit, MD is a professor of pediatrics and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He is the author of Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All (Basic Books, 2011).