Donald Trump has not only spread dangerous misinformation about the links between vaccines and autism, but he’s also given money to the anti-vaxxer cause.
His monetary support for the conspiracy theory came in the form of a $10,000 check to an anti-vaccine charity run by former Playboy model and television host Jenny McCarthy.
Trump’s monetary and moral support for McCarthy’s discredited ideas have real, harmful effects—they contribute to the mainstreaming of a conspiracy theory at a time when parents are increasingly deciding to opt out of vaccines despite medical advice.
McCarthy has been a vocal opponent of chemicals in vaccines since 2007, citing discredited studies and experiences with her autistic son. “The University of Google is where I got my degree from,” she once said in an interview.
She put her misinformed views into action by leading an anti-vaccine nonprofit called Generation Rescue, which the Republican nominee’s controversial Trump Foundation charity contributed to in 2010, according to nonprofit records.
McCarthy’s charity promotes “alternative vaccination physicians” and has a grant program to provide families with autistic children with vitamins, minerals, and supplements; urine testing; and “dietary intervention training.” She has also claimed that her son has recovered from vaccine-triggered autism because of so-called biomedical treatment: She changed his diet, gave him vitamins, and “detoxed” his body from metals.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that there is no link between vaccination and autism, and those advocating for higher immunization rates charge that McCarthy is not only promoting a dangerous concept, but also brands those on the autistic spectrum as damaged individuals.
“Generation Rescue supports many terrible theories concerning vaccines, and also promotes autism as something with a stigma, something parents should fear more than measles,” said Karen Ernst, the executive director of Voices for Vaccines, which promotes scientific vaccination information.
But facts and science haven’t stopped Trump from spreading debunked theories.
“Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes—AUTISM. Many such cases!” Trump tweeted in March 2014.
After catching flack for these comments, Trump later tweeted in September 2014 that he was being “proven right” and that “doctors lied” about vaccinations—adding that many parents of autistic children had thanked him.
Trump’s views appear to be having an effect on the party he now heads. A study conducted for The Daily Beast earlier this year showed a link between Republican Party affiliation and anti-vaccine sentiment—with Donald Trump most frequently mentioned by anti-vaccination survey participants as a public figure who shared their views. The survey found that 25 percent of GOP respondents expressed skepticism of vaccinations, while 15 percent of Democrats said the same.
As Trump was tweeting misinformation about autism in 2014, pediatricians were sounding the alarm about an increasing percentage of children who went unvaccinated for non-medical reasons—more than 4.5 percent in states like Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, and Vermont. Measles, which was declared eradicated in America back in 2000, is back on the rise in part due to this trend—in 2014, it infected 189 people, three times as many people as it did in 2009.
Neither McCarthy’s group nor Trump’s campaign responded to Daily Beast questions about the 2010 donation. Trump claimed in a debate last year that he actually supports vaccinations, but wants the vaccination schedule to be spread out further.
“Autism has become an epidemic… I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time,” Trump said, before rambling on about a 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.”
But even this position has no basis in science.
“The CDC [vaccination] schedule is well studied and researched, and based on giving children vaccines when they can best respond to them and when they’re most at risk for bad complications for the diseases that vaccinations prevent,” Ernst told The Daily Beast. “Spreading vaccines out more is unresearched and leaves children at risk for longer. Spreading them out longer is not an evidence-based way to deliver vaccines.”
Ultimately, Trump’s vaccination campaign gives insight into the kooky alternate reality that the Republican nominee lives in, inhabited by outlandish claims and outright lies: from his remarks this week that Google is conspiring to bury negative Hillary Clinton stories, to his belief that thousands of U.S. Muslims cheered on the terror attacks of 9/11, to the Obama “birther” conspiracy—the list goes on and on.
But unlike those theories, which have more abstract consequences, Trump’s crusade on vaccines puts children at risk. Trump was not only willing to trumpet this dangerous misinformation—he gave money to advance it.