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Trump’s vaccine views are at odds with those of most Americans, study says

Vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella and for chickenpox at a Kaiser Permanente medical office in Denver. (Joe Amon/Denver Post via Getty Images)

The criticism of vaccines voiced by President Trump and some other public figures is at odds with the attitudes of most Americans, who overwhelmingly support requiring public school children to be vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella, according to a Pew Research Center survey released Thursday.

Overall, 82 percent of Americans support requiring students in public schools to be vaccinated for those three diseases. In addition, the survey found, their perceptions of the benefits of that combination vaccine are strongly positive, with about 88 percent saying the benefits outweigh any risks. About 73 percent of Americans see high preventive health benefits, and 66 percent say there is a low risk of side effects.

The survey, which was conducted before the November presidential election, comes at a time when medical, scientific and government experts have raised alarms about Trump’s embrace of discredited claims about vaccine safety. After a meeting in January with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a proponent of the debunked theory that vaccines cause autism, a Trump spokeswoman said he was considering creation of a commission on autism.

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter has requested a meeting with first lady Melania Trump to talk about the safety of vaccines. Carter is co-founder and president of Every Child By Two, a vaccine-advocacy group.

“We offered to bring experts to the table to explain all the science that has already been conducted on the safety of vaccines and the safety systems that are already in place that would make the commission redundant and unnecessary,” Amy Pisani, the group’s executive director, said in an interview this week.

Here are some of the most common arguments for and against vaccination. (Video: The Washington Post)

Despite a robust body of medical literature disproving claims that childhood vaccines are linked to autism or are unsafe when administered according to the recommended schedule, public concerns persist, fueled by celebrities and conspiracy theorists.

How Donald Trump's autism/vaccine theory was completely debunked eons ago

Trump has long been critical of vaccines. He met with several vaccine skeptics during his campaign and since his election, including the discredited British ex-physician Andrew Wakefield — who attended one of the presidential inaugural balls. Wakefield launched the modern anti-vaccine movement after publishing a study, now fully discredited as fraudulent, that connected autism to the MMR vaccine.

Following their meeting last month, Kennedy said that he and Trump had discussed creation of a vaccine commission, which he would chair. Public health experts have noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already has a well-established expert panel, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which follows a scientifically rigorous and open process to evaluate all aspects of vaccine safety.

A White House spokeswoman said Wednesday that she had no update on Trump’s commission.

The Pew survey found that Americans 65 and older have especially strong support for a school-based requirement for the MMR vaccine. Ninety percent favor such a requirement; 8 percent say parents should be able to decide. Among Americans younger than 50, support for required vaccination drops to just under 80 percent.

Parents of younger children are among the most concerned about vaccine safety. Just over half of those with children ages 4 and younger say the risk of side effects is low, according to Pew, while 43 percent say the risk is medium or high.

As for preventive health benefits, 60 percent of parents with younger children say the benefits are high, compared with 75 percent of parents with school-age children (ages 5 to 17).

Racial and ethnic groups have different perceptions, too. Blacks consider the risk of vaccine side effects to be higher and the benefits lower than whites and Hispanics. People with “low science knowledge” are also more likely to fear greater risk of side effects, Pew found.

“Public health benefits from vaccines hinge on very high levels of immunization in the population, so it’s important to understand which groups hold reservations about the MMR vaccine,” said Cary Funk, the report’s lead author.

Authorities blame the resurgence of childhood diseases in recent years — including a multistate measles outbreak that began at Disneyland in 2015 — on the growing number of people who either decline to vaccinate their children for personal reasons or who delay certain vaccines.

The survey found that public views of medical scientists and their research related to childhood vaccines are broadly positive. The data shows that 73 percent of adults say medical scientists should have a major role in policy decisions related to childhood vaccines. Only 25 percent say elected officials should have a say.

Republicans and Democrats are about equally likely to support a school-based vaccine requirement. But conservatives are slightly more likely than either moderates or liberals to say that parents should be able to decide not to have their children vaccinated. Still, a significant majority of Americans in each group support requiring the MMR vaccine to protect all public school children from preventable diseases.  

The survey was conducted from May 10 to June 6 among a nationally representative sample of 1,549 adults in 50 states and the District. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.

This post has been updated to clarify the comments made following Trump’s meeting with Kennedy.

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