President-elect Donald Trump has recklessly linked vaccines with autism. He is wrong and that view endangers children, write two physicians. Don’t put children’s health at risk.

Share story

“People that work for me, just the other day, two years old, 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.”

— Donald J. Trump, Sept. 2015.


President-elect Donald J. Trump apparently believes that vaccines cause autism.

Tom Price, M.D., Trump’s nominee as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, belongs to a Phoenix-based group that promotes the belief that vaccines cause autism, and that “shaken baby syndrome” — a brain injury in infants or toddlers as a result of forceful shaking — is a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury.

In August 2016, Trump met with anti-vaccine activists, including Andrew Wakefield, whose 1998 paper in Lancet — since retracted after being found to contain falsified data — first linked autism to vaccines. At that meeting, according to participants, Trump agreed to further meetings with anti-vaccine activists.

This is worrisome. Each year approximately 1.5 million children around the world die from vaccine-preventable illnesses. In 2015, measles alone killed 134,000 people, most of them children in sub-Saharan Africa. This represents a marked improvement: between 2000 and 2015, the number of global deaths due to measles dropped by 79 percent, a reduction attributable to enhanced vaccination.

Before the availability of measles vaccine in 1963, measles was common in the United States, with half a million cases and 450 deaths due to measles occurring each year. After the introduction of the measles vaccine, the rate of the disease dropped precipitously; it was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000.

But the number of U.S. cases of measles is now surging. In 2014 there were 23 outbreaks of measles, with a total of 668 cases in 27 states. This was the greatest number of U.S. cases since 2000. The majority of those infected had not been vaccinated for measles.

There is no link between vaccines and autism. And the evidence on the benefit of vaccines is consistent and voluminous. Tetanus in the U.S. has been reduced by more than 98 percent; polio is almost eliminated worldwide; smallpox, which caused an average 48,000 cases per year in the United States during the 20th century, has been eliminated from the planet. The incidence of multiple other infectious diseases, including mumps, rubella, and pertussis, have been markedly reduced in recent years — all because of vaccination.

There is no link between vaccines and autism. And the evidence on the benefit of vaccines is consistent and voluminous.”

Do vaccines have side effects? Yes. Transient soreness at the site of injection can occur. After vaccination for MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), up to one recipient in six develops a low-grade fever. But the bottom line is that the risk of side effects is far outweighed by the benefits.

Vaccination protects not only the vaccine recipient, but also others who might be infected by that person, including those who cannot receive vaccines for valid medical reasons. Robert Pearl, M.D., executive director and CEO of the Permanente Medical Group, wrote, “As a society we don’t condone behavior that puts others at risk for injury or death. There are no exemptions for laws that prohibit drunk driving, for example.”

We are victims of our own success. Melinda Gates notes that in low-income nations, mothers “will walk 10 kilometers in the heat with their child and line up to get a vaccine because they have seen death. We’ve forgotten what measles deaths look like. We’ve forgotten … the scourges they used to be. But in Africa, the women know death in their children and they want their children to survive. … We’re incredibly lucky to have that technology, and we ought to take advantage of it.”

We are physicians who teach tropical medicine in East Africa each year, where we witness the tragedy of illnesses and deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases. Our training, experiences and observations align, both here and in low-income nations: vaccines save lives.

Trump may become our president, but this doesn’t mean we need to compromise our health, especially that of our children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) bases its vaccine schedule on the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), a group of medical and public-health experts. The vaccines recommended by the CDC and ACIP should be mandatory for schoolchildren. We should allow exemptions from vaccines only for valid medical reasons. Three states — California, Mississippi, and West Virginia — already have laws that prevent religious or philosophical exemptions from most childhood vaccines. The rest should follow suit.

Our children should not die as a result of their parents’ philosophy, religion or misinformation.