News that Donald Trump is meeting with noted anti-vaxxer Robert Kennedy Jr. is terrifying to those of us with kids and access to the facts. The facts, of course, are that vaccines for numerous infections have saved millions of lives since their wide availability over the course of the last century. And only in the warm glow of the privilege that comes from an almost fully vaccinated herd could something as preposterous and stupid as the anti-vaccine movement emerge. And emerge it has.
RFK Jr. is a noted environmentalist whose anti-vaxxer life began when he opposed inclusion of thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative, in vaccines. Though he previously referred to Trump as dangerous, and has historically supported Democrats, Kennedy and Trump find common ground in their confounding position on vaccines. Thimerosal reactions, though uncommon, have occurred. The ingredient is widely considered safe (it doesn’t have the same risks as mercury; it’s just mercury-based), and outside of the US there is essentially no controversy over it. But RFK went full conspiracy theory on it and alleges a government cover-up operation on the connections between thimerosal and autism, referring to vaccines as a “holocaust” in 2015. “They can put anything they want in that vaccine,” he said. Untrue.
Trump’s anti-vaxx bullshit isn’t new. Like so many Americans who just aren’t convinced by the copious data and the polio-free populace, Trump has his doubts, and that’s good enough, right? Sure, there was just a warning issued in the Denver area of a “possible measles exposure,” and sure, breakouts of measles at Disneyland and the 15 percent increase in cases of whooping cough in 2015 were both attributed to people not vaccinating, but maybe we should still give a listen to the discredited, possibly child-abusing doctor whose “study” on the links between autism and vaccines has been laughed out of the medical community because it is so mistaken. Trump’s support for vaccine suspicion dates back to at least 2014 when he wrote on Twitter (his paper of record), “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn't feel good and changes - AUTISM. Many such cases!”
There hasn’t been one documented case of a link between vaccines and autism.
MANY such cases. Or, you know, none. There hasn’t been one documented case of a link between vaccines and autism. Let that sink in. Plenty of extremely scared, misinformed parents who want only the best for their children are in fact finding the worst: They’re finding bad information, which flows like wine on the internet, and they’re finding conspiracy theories. And now, those bunk theories are being floated by the very rich and very powerful.
And herein lies the real danger. As I’ve written before, Trump can’t simply change all of our laws and make the vaccines stop. It’s a lot more complicated than that, and most Americans support requiring school children to be vaccinated. But the danger of Trump, for now, in the vaccine issue, is that he mainstreams a fringe opinion. He suggests, with his apparent open mind, that this opinion — being suspicious of vaccines working or safety — is a valid one. It’s not. Vaccines work. Not having vaccines means people die. The debate is over.
Update: Kennedy emerged from his meeting to tell press that Trump had asked him to chair a committee on "vaccination safety," and that he had accepted. Good to know we're completely fucked.