Hardly a day I spend in the office goes by when I don’t give vaccines. I do so because I know there is no actual debate. I do so as a pediatrician because the welfare of my patients, welfare I took an oath to safeguard, depends on protecting them against diseases that could seriously sicken or kill them.
The idea of creating a commission to study one of the most settled subjects in medicine confirms a gnawing fear I’ve had since the earliest days of Trump’s presidential campaign. Drowned out by the noise of his outrageous statements and intemperate tweets is the fact that Trump believes vaccines cause autism. He has loudly proclaimed that misinformed belief for years, long before he was ever considered a serious candidate for the White House.
To believe otherwise requires a couple of different things. First, it requires the rejection of a huge amount of medical science. Not merely one study or two, but study after study after study confirms that vaccines are safe, and that there is no connection with autism. If that mass of evidence doesn’t convince you, what can medical science produce that will? If you reject those data, which data can be found that will somehow prove trustworthy?
But the implications of a vaccine-autism connection go beyond that. If vaccines genuinely cause autism like their opponents claim, one of two things must be true of pediatricians like me who administer them. Either we are too incompetent to discern the relationship between the two, or we are too monstrous to care. One cannot believe that autism is related to vaccination without simultaneously indicting the overwhelming majority of physicians, nurses and other medical providers in this country. Even your local Rotary Club is in on it.
By saying that immunizations cause autism, Trump is training his sights on me and every other provider who delivers the same care I do.
I encounter the effects of the anti-vaccine movement on a regular basis. Mine is an office that asks parents to agree to protect their children by having them immunized according to the standard schedule for early childhood, but there are a few shots they can opt out of later. Despite ample evidence of its safety and efficacy, many parents choose not to give their children the vaccination against the carcinogenic human papillomavirus, leaving their sons and daughters at increased risk of several different cancers. When I ask why, they mention vague things they’ve heard about ill effects.
When I worked previously at a practice that had a more lenient policy regarding vaccines, the experience was even more stark. Several parents rejected them outright, and nothing I could say would change their minds. Every study I could reference was cooked, and there was some malign influence behind it all.
Of course not. But vaccine-preventable illnesses will only stay at bay if parents are appropriately reassured that the means of preventing them are safe and effective.
Will that be the conclusion of a Trump-created, Kennedy-led commission? I have absolutely no confidence that it will be. The mere creation of the commission, meant to investigate a question that has already been asked and answered many times over, is ominous, even aside from the anti-vaccine agenda both men unmistakably share. Given Trump’s disdain for facts that inconveniently conflict with his opinions, to believe the commission will land on the side of vaccination requires an optimism bordering on the deranged.
Instead, what is likely to happen is that confidence in one of the greatest benefits to public health in human history will be further eroded. Its findings will certainly be as unfounded, perhaps fraudulent, as the anti-vaccine efforts that have come before it. But this time they will bear the seal of the President of the United States.
Daniel Summers is a pediatrician in New England.