Why Trump's Rumored "Vaccine Commission" Is Unnecessary & Terrifying

Photographed by Tayler Smith.
Yesterday, prominent vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced that President-Elect Trump had asked him to head up a commission on vaccine safety. But just a few hours later, the Trump team clarified that the President-Elect was only "exploring" the idea of creating a commission (one that would actually be focused on autism).

Whether or not these mixed messages actually amount to anything, the fact that something that flies so directly in the face of established science and medicine would even be considered is beyond troubling.

To learn more about what such a commission could mean for the fight against vaccine misinformation, we checked in with Meredith Wadman, a reporter at Science and author of the upcoming book, The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease.

Is there any reason to think we need a new commission on vaccine safety?
"I don’t believe so. The CDC already has a committee of experts — the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices — that is constituted precisely to evaluate, one by one, vaccines that are being proposed for insertion into the vaccine schedule, the routine immunizations that children get.

"This committee’s been in place for decades. It has a rotating membership of experts — epidemiologists, vaccinologists, infectious disease experts — who have spent their lives studying these issues and bring to bear the best science on questions of vaccine safety and effectiveness. When they make mistakes they admit them and roll them back, like they did with the [first] rotavirus vaccine back in the 1990s. It’s not as if no one is watching the flock here. That why it’s curious to me that a new effort would be called for by the President-Elect."

What sort of message does it send that Trump is meeting with vaccine skeptics?
"It sends a powerful message to any parents who are on the fence about vaccinating their children. Those who are having worries about it that are fomented by inaccurate information on social media and elsewhere are likely to be swayed when someone as powerful as the President of the United States echoes those concerns, which are not scientifically valid and have been disproven multiple times over years and scores of studies.

"The President does not have direct control over the immunization schedule. It's not as if he can wave a wand and say, 'We're going to stop vaccinating against measles, mumps, and rubella because I believe that causes autism.' Never mind that that's been disproven categorically. It's the CDC that sets the vaccine schedule. And he doesn’t have power to appoint people to the CDC's committee of experts. What he does have the power to do is raise doubts. And that is a tremendous concern."

Is there anything we can do to combat the spread of this kind of misinformation?
"It's so easy for us to be complacent about diseases like measles or polio because we don't see them day to day. That is a vaccine victory for which vaccines do not get the credit. People don’t realize what life was like in 1964 when there was a massive rubella epidemic that was worse than Zika — it attacked fetuses in the womb and there were tens of thousands of damaged babies born in this country in that year in the absence of a vaccine.

"We need to recover those stories, like I do in my book, and remember what the costs were when infectious diseases were the biggest killers of children in this country. And it was not that long ago, but it gets quickly forgotten. And globally they are still huge killers of children... And [things like] Zika should serve as a reminder of that. There's no vaccine, and if you're a woman thinking about getting pregnant, chances are it's crossed your mind. If you multiply that fear and that uncertainty and danger by several fold, that's what it was like in the U.S. in 1964 with this epidemic of rubella."
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