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Why Does Donald Trump Think Vaccines Cause Autism?

Why would Mr. Trump do this? Why would he carelessly extend a wildly unpopular theory amongst researchers to a public that may not be aware of the actual science and decade-plus amount of work that have gone into discrediting the link between vaccines and autism?
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He's at it again. Last spring, Donald Trump used his television and pop culture celebrity to push a dead issue on whether the President of the United States, Barack H. Obama, was indeed a U.S. citizen. That campaign ended with the release of the President's long form birth certificate and Mr. Trump announcing how "very proud of himself" he was.

The campaign, although doomed to fail from the start, raised Mr. Trump's status amongst a small, but vocal few in the right-wing of our political landscape, and perhaps most frighteningly, actually propelled him to the front of the G.O.P presidential nominee field for ever a brief moment.

But this was Donald Trump. There was no way such fabricated "legitimacy" could last, and he promptly faded away, leaving the Republican nominee race to much more serious and stable candidates, like misogynistic pizza barons and wife-jumping "historians."

Well, it's spring once again and that means it's time for Mr. Trump to hitch his wagon to another lost cause, simultaneously moving an entire conversation backwards all in the name of propelling his own fame forward. Apparently it was time to once again link vaccines to autism.

Mr. Trump was on Fox & Friends a week or so ago, seemingly to pitch his new cologne "Success," and he made some waves with his comments on "monster shots" and a supposed link between vaccines and the rise in autism. This was indeed relevant conversation, for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recently reported that the number of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) had risen to an estimated 1 in 88 (1.1 percent), up from the 1 in 110 estimates released just two years prior. The problem is, although Mr. Trump called his rantings "just a theory," there was little to no effort made by him nor the stellar Fox & Friends crew to seriously discuss the stunning lack of science behind his claims.

Why would Mr. Trump do this? Why would he carelessly extend a wildly unpopular theory amongst researchers to a public that may not be aware of the actual science and decade-plus amount of work that have gone into discrediting the link between vaccines and autism? Once again, Mr. Trump was making a grab for headlines, hijacking an acutely emotional issue for his own personal gain. He says he is known for taking unpopular positions, but combining this along with his support of the birther movement last year, I think we can safely say that he is also known for supporting sensationally false positions.

The original scientific work linking vaccines to autism came from a 1998 study published in The Lancet by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues on 12 (TWELVE!!!!) children who had previously seemed to be developing normally, however later came to enter "developmental regression" associated in time with a possible environmental trigger, in this case, vaccines. Of course, even middle or high school students are taught that in science, "Correlation does not equal causation."

After being widely criticized for their interpretations and in the face of much larger studies (involving HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of children), finding NO link between MMR vaccinations and autism, 10 of the original 13 authors on that 1998 paper published a retraction of interpretation in 2004.

Dr. Wakefield has stood by his work, even after the paper was fully retracted by The Lancet and after recent investigations have accused Dr. Wakefield of data manipulation and fraud. This saga is still not over, as Dr. Wakefield has battled in the libel-friendly UK courts against those who have investigated his work.

However, let's not let some nonsense science get in the way of the real topic here: Mr. Trump's desperate attempts to stay relevant in a fast-moving media cycle and his willingness to do anything and everything to be part of the popular conversation. Nothing is beneath him, not even jeopardizing the health of children, whose parents may fight back against vaccines after being fed ridiculous, non-scientific "theories" from a reality television star given a bully pulpit on a major media news channel.

If you want some possible (correlational) evidence for my statements, look no further than Twitter. Although Mr. Trump's remarks were made almost two weeks ago, I started seeing rumblings of this "Trump says vaccines cause autism" trope in my Twitter timeline. Sure enough, Mr. Trump must have sensed the hot-button issue he had chosen to ride was dying down and thus tweeted to his 1,140,000+ followers: "Many many people are thanking me for what I said about @autism & vaccinations. Something must be done immediately." In fact he DID do something immediately, calling for the FDA to halt all "heavy-dose vaccinations," claiming that we would subsequently see a dramatic drop in autism. Of course, he has no evidence for any of this, just his hunch. Hunches may be good enough for business investments, but not with the health of our children.

In addition, if you listen again to Mr. Trump's segment on Fox that I linked to above, but this time, you'll hear a few alarming details that underscore his lack of credibility on this issue. First, he claims to have worked very closely with Bob and Suzanne Wright's science advocacy organization, Autism Speaks. Well sadly, he must have not been listening or paying attention while assisting his friends, the Wrights, because otherwise he would know that Mr. and Mrs. Wright do not seem to support the notion that vaccines can cause autism. In fact, this was a major public crisis for the organization, involving the Wright's daughter (who had come out in support of the vaccine-based theory) and one that was even covered by The New York Times. How involved can a man (Mr. Trump) be with an organization, if he disagrees with them on THE most significant, controversial scientific debate in the field?

Secondly, based on his comments in the Fox segment, Mr. Trump also apparently has intimate knowledge of autism diagnosis procedures. Repeated a few times in the interview, Mr. Trump mentions how a 12-pound baby is given a "monster shot" and then "two months later, the baby is different." Given that we are just beginning to better-understand how to diagnose autism spectrum disorders before the second year of life, I find it problematic and concerning that Mr. Trump would claim how easily autism can be identified two months after a 12-pound baby has received his/her vaccinations. This is especially suspect, given that the experts involved in the UK's National Autism Plan recommend up to 30 weeks from point of first concern to complete the diagnosis.

Identifying an increased rate of autism is troubling and if your child, or someone close to you has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, this is an extremely emotional topic. For these reasons, Mr. Trump's attention grabs are irresponsible. Here, just off the top of my head, are a few things Mr. Trump could have said, maintaining scientific accuracy as well as a healthy sense of skepticism to reflect the current gaps in our knowledge of how autism arises:

  • "Yes, 1 in 88 children is a major concern. And although increased awareness and rising levels of official diagnosis clearly account for a significant portion of the rate increase, there is still a major portion that is indeed unexplained by changes in diagnosis rates. More research is essential to understand what other links may be out there."
  • "We are making major advances in understanding some of the genetics linked to autism spectrum disorders. However, despite a large number of candidate genes that have been identified, the picture is becoming increasingly complex, as a very large number of genes may confer risk; networks of gene interactions may very well also contribute. This is in stark contrast to diseases like cystic fibrosis, linked to a single gene disruption."
  • "The average age of diagnosis continues to be around four years of age. We can do better! Although we have learned so much in the clinic over time and have made major efforts to destigmatize autism for families, we are still not reaching out to these children early enough. There are a variety of interventions that although have mixed results depending on the case, need to be tried and applied to help each child, one at a time."
  • "These are our children. We need to understand this complex disease. To meet the demands of these increasing numbers of identified cases, supporting funds for research, treatment exploration and care must rise and outpace diagnosis."
  • "And by all means, PLEASE do not give up on vaccinations. It is much more dangerous to your child to leave him or her unvaccinated than to fear the possibility of autism. Epidemiological research has found NO link between vaccines and rates of autism. Science is always evolving and this is a continued topic of study, but for now, get your children their shots."

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