With New Trump Appointment, Anti-Vaxxers Are Having Their Day In Sun

Trump will have prominent anti-vaccine crusader Robert Kennedy Jr. head a panel on vaccine safety

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Jan 10, 2017 at 1:23 PM ET

Update: According to Reuters, Tuesday’s meeting between President-elect Donald Trump and Robert Kennedy Jr. ended with an offer for Kennedy, a long-time crusader on behalf of the anti-vax movement, to chair a panel on vaccine safety and scientific integrity. Kennedy said he will accept.

Though it’s never been a mainstream political force, the anti-vaccination movement has been on the upswing within credible institutions, with both our imminent President and even a prominent doctor throwing their support behind it in recent days.

President-elect Donald Trump is set to meet with Robert Kennedy Jr. on Tuesday, specifically to talk about vaccine policy, according to reports of his schedule. Kennedy, an environmental activist and son of Senator Robert Kennedy, has long been a fervent crusader of the anti-vax movement, once calling the mandatory vaccination of children a “holocaust” in the making. And it’s hardly Trump’s first dip into the anti-vax pool.

During the election, as well as in years past, Trump repeatedly echoed similar suspicions about vaccine safety and their link to autism. And in November, he held a meeting with several prominent anti-vax activists, including the former doctor Andrew Wakefield, whose debunked 1998 study helped spark lowering vaccination rates. Wakefield called his meeting with Trump “very positive,” reported Stat News.

Elsewhere, this last weekend, a major medical center in Cleveland, Ohio was scrambling to save face after one of its head doctors went on the warpath against vaccines.

As part of a monthly column for published January 6, Dr. Daniel Neides, medical director and chief operating officer of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, offered his take on the “toxins” surrounding us and how to avoid them in 2017.

Among the other dazzling arguments made, he blamed the formaldehyde in his annual flu shot for causing him to miss work with body aches and cough; attacked the idea of vaccinating newborn children for the virus that causes Hepatitis B (in part because the vaccine contains aluminum), and repeatedly and positively referenced the claim that vaccines can cause autism and other neurological disorders.

All of Neides’ talking points are familiar canards within the anti-vax movement. And there’s little good evidence to support any of them, particularly the constantly debunked link between vaccines and autism spectrum disorder. For instance, while formaldehyde is a potential carcinogen and is found in some vaccines like the flu shot, where it’s used to help kill off the virus, the actual dose is nowhere near enough to hurt someone, according to the Food and Drug Administration. And if the mere presence of formaldehyde is enough to scare you off, then you should avoid apples for the rest of your life. Or just people in general, since our own bodies make a negligible amount too.

Thanks partly to the Cleveland Clinic’s renown and influence (it operates over 200 locations in the state), the ensuing social media outrage from doctors and science communicators quickly reached a fever pitch. On Sunday, the clinic fully disavowed Neides’ column, following an earlier similar response.

“Our physician published his statement without authorization from Cleveland Clinic,” their statement read. “His views do not reflect the position of Cleveland Clinic and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken.”

Neides also walked back his comments to some degree. In a statement, he apologized for his post, claimed that he fully supported vaccination and said that his “concern was meant to be positive around the safety of them.”

But while Neides’ views have come under fire, his willingness to air them in public could certainly signify a changing landscape around vaccines.

Trump’s nomination for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, is also no stranger to anti-vax beliefs. Price is a current member of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), an organization that has recently published editorials about the evils of mandatory flu vaccination and other anti-vax propaganda masquerading as research.

It’s unclear how much Trump could do to actively champion the movement, but advocates have fought for the expansion of “personal belief” exemptions for childhood vaccinations, the removal of preservatives and other ingredients from all vaccines, and a spaced out vaccination schedule. And Trump has already called for the latter at least.