Last week, President-Elect Trump received a visit from none other than Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who our colleague Walter Olson refers to as America’s Most Irresponsible Public Figure. Keeping with this title, Kennedy will be joining the Trump team on a panel to vet vaccine safety.
This, like many of Trumps moves, will create international debate. For example, the most prominent advocate in Britain of the idea that there is a link between vaccinations (in his case the MMR or measles, mumps and rubella vaccine) and autism was Dr. Andrew Wakefield, whose 1998 Lancet paper (now retracted) attracted vast global interest. But Dr. Wakefield’s conduct of the research behind that paper was judged so unacceptable by the regulatory body, the General Medical Council, that his license to practice medicine was revoked. In that vignette we see a microcosm of the whole debate, because too many of the anti-vaccination advocates are not citing evidence and science at the highest level. And such episodes matter because if public confidence in vaccination falls too low, the rate of uptake of the vaccines will fall, herd immunity will fall, and epidemics of preventable yet dangerous disease will recur.
Much anti-vaccination anxiety focuses on the role of the mercury-based chemical thiomersal, which was once widely used to helped preserve vaccines but which is used less today. Nonetheless systematic reviews of the field have repeatedly affirmed that there is no evidence to suppose that thiomersal precipitates autism (see M Maglione et al, 2014, Pediatrics, 134: 325-337.)
Autism is a serious condition, which deserves serious investigation. No harm need come from this new Trump-inspired investigation as long as it is not in itself used to damage the credibility of existing vaccination protocols.