Doctors and members of the medical community are raising concerns after President-elect Donald Trump met with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has advocated for parental opt-out provisions for routine childhood vaccinations.
"President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies, and he has questions about it," Kennedy told reporters immediately after the meeting on Tuesday. "His opinion doesn't matter, but the science does matter, and we ought to be reading the science, and we ought to be debating the science. Everybody ought to be able to be assured that the vaccines that we have — he's very pro-vaccine, as am I — but they're as safe as they possibly can be."
Kennedy also told reporters that Trump asked him to chair a commission on vaccine safety, but the Trump team did not confirm that appointment and said the president-elect was exploring a commission that would look broadly at autism.
"The president-elect enjoyed his discussion with Robert Kennedy Jr. on a range of issues and appreciates his thoughts and ideas," the Trump transition team said in a statement. "The president-elect is exploring the possibility of forming a commission on autism, which affects so many families; however, no decisions have been made at this time. The president-elect looks forward to continuing the discussion about all aspects of autism with many groups and individuals."
The meeting, coupled with Trump's past statements on vaccines, has raised alarm in the medical community, which stands by a preponderance of evidence that shows no link between autism and vaccines.
Kennedy has made controversial statements about vaccines for many years, generally unsupported by the larger medical community. He wrote a 2014 book that supported a theory born in the 1990s that claimed thimerosal, a mercury-based vaccine additive, is a dangerous neurotoxin that could trigger autism and should be banned. Kennedy has linked vaccines and autism on his website.
The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reviewed hundreds of studies since then and have consistently found no link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. The additive is no longer used in routine childhood vaccines and is considered safe in the doses used in influenza vaccines, according to the CDC.
In 2015, Kennedy visited several states to argue against rules that make it more difficult for students to be exempt from vaccine requirements, although he said he is "pro-vaccine," according to his website.
In response to Trump's meeting with Kennedy, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement emphasizing the safety of vaccines and their importance in safeguarding children's health against common, easily spread and sometimes deadly childhood illnesses.
"Claims that vaccines are linked to autism or are unsafe when administered according to the recommended schedule have been disproven by a robust body of medical literature," said Dr. Fernando Stein and Dr. Karen Remley, the president and vice president, respectively, of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a statement today. "Delaying vaccines only leaves a child at risk of disease. Vaccines keep communities healthy and protect some of the most vulnerable in our society, including the elderly and children who are too young to be vaccinated or have compromised immune systems."
"We stand ready to work with the White House and the federal government to share the extensive scientific evidence demonstrating the safety of vaccines, including the recommended schedule," Stein and Remley wrote.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said he was hopeful about a commission on autism and hoped it would leave out any mention of vaccines.
"A commission on autism might well be a very good thing to direct attention" to the condition, he said. But "as regards to vaccines, we would keep reinforcing the notion that vaccines are one of the greatest public health triumphs, they are safe and effective and not associated with autism."
Other medical groups have also responded to the meeting, including the Infectious Diseases Society of America, which released a statement in support of vaccines this morning saying the group "stands behind the overwhelming scientific evidence that has repeatedly demonstrated the overall safety and benefit of routine childhood vaccinations."
"Children are far more likely to be harmed by vaccine preventable illness, such as measles, than by the vaccines that prevent such infections," IDSA officials said in the statement.
Trump previously expressed skepticism about vaccines. During a 2015 Republican candidates' debate Trump reiterated statements he had made associating autism with vaccines.
"We had so many instances, people that work for me," Trump said. "Just the other day, 2 years old, a beautiful child, went to have the vaccine and came back and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic."
"Autism has become an epidemic — 25 years ago, 30 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close," he said. "It has gotten totally out of control."
Alison Singer, the president and a co-founder of the Autism Science Foundation, released a statement after that debate saying science overwhelmingly supported vaccinations as safe. In a statement yesterday she said she is concerned that underimmunizing children will put them at risk for contracting preventable diseases, adding that opting out of vaccinations will not lower the risk for developing autism.
"Science has answered" the question, Singer said. "All of the studies that we have done have shown there is no link between vaccines and autism."