Doctors and medical researchers can't tell if President-elect Trump is serious about reexamining the science behind the safety of vaccines, or whether he's just telling prominent anti-vaccine advocate Robert Kennedy, Jr. what he wants to hear.
Kennedy met with Trump this week in New York, and afterward Kennedy said the president-elect wants him to chair a federal commission to examine the issue. Trump spokespeople said no decisions have been made, but the former New York City developer does have a history of questioning vaccine safety and pushing the discredited idea that childhood immunizations lead to autism.
"Is [Trump] truly hesitant about the safety of vaccines or is this him reacting to an anecdote?" said Litjen Tan, chief strategy officer at the Immunization Action Coalition, a non-profit group that works with doctors and parents to increase immunization rates. "This is choosing to expand government on an issue that has so clearly been addressed as not an issue at all," he said. "This reflects a lack of education on the president-elect's part. There are also systems in place that ensure vaccine safety. It's the best in the world."
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Tan and others in the public health community are dismayed that Trump met with Kennedy, who has a history of questioning the safety of vaccines since 2005, as reported by Scientific American.
Perhaps even worse is the possibility that the kind of doubts that Kennedy, and perhaps Trump, are raising about the safety of vaccines could spill over into other infectious disease vaccine efforts, such as development of a vaccine to combat emerging diseases like Zika or even seasonal flu viruses.
"There's great concern," says Sara Long, who has served on the Centers for Disease Control's Advisory Council on Immunization Practices and is a professor of pediatrics at Drexel University School of Medicine.
"It is just not reasonable to think that another commission will find something that hasn't been found," Long said. "Nor is there any chance... this is anything that has been influenced by industry or whitewashed by the medical community. It's all anti-science."
A spokeswoman for the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which funds various vaccine development projects, said it would not comment on Kennedy's statements.
In an interview with Science magazine, Kennedy said that Trump told him that he had five friends whose children had contracted various ailments after being vaccinated.
"I think vaccines save lives," Kennedy told Science. "But we are also seeing an explosion in neurodevelopmental disorders and we ought to be able to do a cost-benefit analysis and see what's causing them. We ought to have robust, transparent science and an independent regulatory agency. Nobody is trying to get rid of vaccines here. I just want safe vaccines."
CDC director Thomas Frieden resigned early this month after eight years in office. His replacement has not been named by the new administration.
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