On more than 20 occasions, Mr Trump has tweeted about there being a link between vaccines and autism, something experts at the government’s leading public health institute say is not true. He also repeated the claim during a Republican primary debate, a remark that was immediately dismissed as false by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
Prior the election, Mr Trump met with four prominent anti-vaccine campaigners at a fundraiser in Florida – disbarred British doctor Andrew Wakefield, Mark Blaxill, editor-at-large of the Age of Autism website, Gary Kompothecras, a chiropractor and Trump donor from Sarasota, and Jennifer Larson, an entrepreneur who has campaigned against the use of vaccines in her home state of Minnesota.
The campaigners celebrated after Mr Trump won the election and met with another anti-vaccine campaigner, Robert F Kennedy Jr (son of Robert Kennedy who was assassinated in 1968).
Mr Kennedy later told members of his environmental law firm he would be taking a leave of absence to chair an advisory panel on the issue at the president-elect’s request. “Mr Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it” he told reporters.
After news of the meeting emerged, Ms Larson wrote on the Age of Autism website: “Now that Trump won, we can all feel safe in sharing that Mr Trump met with autism advocates in August. He gave us 45 minutes and was extremely educated on our issues. Mark [Blaxill] stated ‘You can’t make America great with all these sick children and more coming’. Trump shook his head and agreed.”
As it is, Mr Trump appears not to have so far pulled the trigger on establishing the advisory panel. However, while Mr Trump has not spoken further with Mr Kennedy, the latter has apparently spoken with a number of senior administration officials.
A recent report in StatNews said the 64-year-old lawyer and campaigner met with senior officials from the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health. The FDA said Mr Kennedy met with Dr Peter Marks, head of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, and other FDA staff on March 30 2017. Vaccines are regulated by this division of the FDA.
At the end of May 2017, Mr Kennedy met top leaders of the NIH. Director Francis Collins and Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak attended the meeting, along with the heads of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the report said.
Mr Kennedy also made news in February last year, when he appeared alongside Robert de Niro to offer $100,000 (£73,880) to anyone who could provide a study that showed it was safe to administer vaccines to children. De Niro, who has an autistic son, triggered controversy the year before when he had arranged for the Tribeca Film Festival, which he runs, to show Mr Wakefield’s film Vaxxed, which seeks to prove the link between vaccines and autism and expose alleged fraud at the CDC.
Daniel Summers, a paediatrician from New England, was among those who quickly sought to claim the prize, writing in the Washington Post: “It’s nearing two decades since I graduated from medical school, and in that span of time I’ve immunised thousands of patients. Not once have I encountered a case where those immunisations could be plausibly linked with autism.”
He added: “In the off chance that my word alone isn’t sufficient to collect the $100,000, I’m happy to proffer lots of studies that support the safety of vaccines. Studies never seem to settle the question for anti-vaccine activists, but they are the best evidence we could ever have.”
Mr Summers said he had little doubt Mr Wakefield was at the forefront of effort to try and undermine vaccine safety “which is rather an accomplishment for someone who's been stripped of his privileges as a physician”.
Asked about the danger of allowing the claims of the disgraced British doctor and others to go unchallenged, he said: “The danger is that diseases that have become fleetingly uncommon will come roaring back. The only vaccine-preventable illness that has been wholly eradicated is smallpox. All the rest linger in some pocket of the human population or another, and without vigilance to keep them at bay, they could come back.”
The Centres for Disease Control, the pre-eminent public health organisation in the country and part of the Department of Health and Human Services, strongly encourages that parents vaccinate their children.
Asked whether there was any evidence to support Mr Trump’s assertion of a link between autism and vaccines, the CDC’s communications department said in a statement: “Credible scientific evidence shows that vaccines are very safe and do not cause autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
“CDC, the Federal Drug Administration, and the Advisory Committee on Immunisation Practices, regularly review data to ensure that vaccine recommendations are based on the latest available science to provide safe and effective protection against serious diseases. Concerned parents should be reassured that recommended childhood vaccines have a strong safety record.”
It added: “For the general population, maintaining high vaccination levels is important not only for the individual person but also to protect potentially deadly diseases from spreading to the most vulnerable among us, such as patients with weakened immune systems and newborn children who are too young to be vaccinated.”
Mr Wakefield was in 2010 found guilty by the UK’s General Medial Council of three dozen charges including dishonesty and abuse of children, shortly after The Lancet medical journal retracted the 1998 study on which his claims about the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine were based. The magazine’s editor said at the time that statements in the article “were utterly false”.
A decade earlier he had moved to Texas where he continued to promote his theories. Health officials in Minnesota believe he was partly responsible for a 2017 outbreak of measles, the worst in decades, among the Somali-American community in Minneapolis.
He and other anti-vaccine campaigners met several times with members of the community, which was concerned about what it believed was an unusually high incidence of autism among Somali boys, something health officials said was not borne out by data.
Asked about his meeting with the president, Mr Wakefield told The Independent: “I met him once before the election, when he was running for the presidency. We had a meeting in Florida. We were there, four of us representing the issue of autism and its link to immunisation.
“He interjected and said ‘you don’t need to tell me that vaccines cause autism. I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it personally’. We went on to discuss the issue of there autism crisis that is set to affect 80 per cent of boys if nothing is done. He said if he was to be elected he’d do something about it.”
Asked if was campaigning in America because his reputation had been wrecked in Britain, Mr Wakefield said: “I was discredited in the eyes of those who wanted to see me discredited. In other words, those who had an interest in maintaining the status quo.
“I don’t represent any of them. What I represent is the parents and the children who have been damaged. Is there a real case to answer? Absolutely. Do I believe vaccines cause autism? Yes I do. Is the problem equally as large in the US? Yes it is.”