The United States policy on vaccinations — a hallmark public health policy that helps keep the entire country safe from deadly and crippling diseases — could be in for a troubling change.
Outspoken vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., announced Tuesday that he had met with President-Elect Donald Trump about possibly heading up a commission on vaccine safety and science.
Kennedy authored two controversial articles in 2005 claiming that the government was covering up possible connections between vaccines and autism, a claim based on a now-debunked medical study from 1998 that purported to have found a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and autism, according to Reuters.
Years of medical studies that have explored the alleged connection have found no evidence that vaccines are unsafe. In fact, in response to the news of Kennedy’s meeting with Trump, the American Academy of Pediatrics called vaccines "the most significant medical innovation of our time.”
The MMR vaccine, along with a host of other vaccines children receive as they grow up, protect against diseases that used to cause widespread death or crippling disabilities, including polio, pertussis, and diphtheria. Eighteen states allow parents to opt out of vaccines based on moral, personal, or religious grounds, while 29 others allow exemptions on religious grounds only.
A federal advisory committee on immunization already exists and is made up of medical and public health experts who develop recommendations on how vaccines are used in the United States, according to the Washington Post.
Kennedy, the son of the late U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, met with Trump on Tuesday to discuss the position, though Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks issued a statement saying Trump had not yet made a decision on whether to form a safety panel.
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"President-Elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policy, and he has questions about it," Kennedy told reporters. "He asked me to chair a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity. I said I would," said Kennedy.
Kennedy said the president-elect is “pro-vaccine” though Trump has expressed doubt about vaccination methods before. In 2014 Trump tweeted, "I believe in vaccinations but not massive, all at once, shots. Too much for small child to handle. Govt. should stop NOW!”
Members of the medical community were quick to voice concern over the potential commission.
The American Medical Association said it “fully supports the overwhelming evidence that vaccines are among the most effective and safest interventions to both prevent individual illness and protect the health of the public.”
Daniel Johnson, a pediatric infectious disease expert at University of Chicago Medicine, told Reuters he was "very concerned" that parents may delay getting their children vaccinated as they await word from a vaccination safety panel, which could result in "increased harm, illness and potentially death" of children from diseases that could be prevented by vaccines.
Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, a nonprofit that works to control, treat and eliminate vaccine-preventable and neglected tropical diseases, said the country’s public health “will suffer if this nascent neo-antivaxxer movement is not stopped immediately.”
Kennedy has used alarming rhetoric in the past when describing his views on vaccines.
“They get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone,” Kennedy said in 2015. “This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.”
That same year, there was an outbreak of measles at California’s Disneyland theme park infected 125 people. The virus was only able to spread because of unvaccinated people, offering a glimpse into how quickly public health could be endangered by individuals who choose not to be vaccinated.