Originally published on the American Conservative.
A presidential commission led by Robert Kennedy Jr. could raise uncomfortable questions about the incentives driving vaccination recommendations.
Robert Kennedy Jr. and Robert De Niro convened a news conference on Wednesday at the National Press Club to announce a $100,000 cash reward for anyone who identifies a peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrating that the mercury in vaccines is safe. Though the challenge was perhaps something of a stunt, the significance of the appearance was underscored by Kennedy’s confirming that President Trump may ask him to lead a commission on autism. The consequences of such a commission could extend beyond the narrow vaccine/autism debate. More significantly, the commission could expose the incentives driving vaccination policy, which, in the current political climate, could move mainstream opinion against vaccines and also bolster doubts about the integrity of the health-care system.
Since at least 2007, Trump has suggested that the recent “epidemic” of autism might be related to current immunization practices. He is not categorically against immunization—in fact, he is “totally in favor of vaccines,” as he says—but he suggests that the rate and quantity of injections given to infants, per the recommended immunization schedule, may contribute to incidents of autism. In Trump’s words, “massive combined inoculations” and “simultaneous vaccinations”may be producing a wave of “doctor-inflicted autism.”
Trump’s central point that diagnoses of autism have skyrocketed alongside an increase in childhood vaccination is not in dispute. The term “early infantile autism” was first introduced in 1943 based on clinical observations of eleven children. When Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger published a groundbreaking paper on autism a year later, it drew little attention, and, indeed, was only translated and annotated into English in 1991. Possible links between immunization and autism did not draw much comment in subsequent years because mass vaccination itself was not yet a common practice. It wasn’t until 1949 that the combined diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT) vaccine was licensed in the United States for pediatric use, and it was only around this time that large-scale vaccine production for public health became feasible.
The more salient question is whether vaccines are contributing to the wave of autism diagnoses since the 1980s, when major policy changes related to immunization were enacted. By 1981, under the Childhood Immunization Initiative, all 50 states instituted laws linking school eligibility to immunization—an effective mandate far more stringent than what is instituted in Canada and most European countries. A surge of lawsuits followed and, in a series of high-profile settlements, manufacturers of the whooping cough and polio vaccines were held liable for injuries in children. In response to warnings from pharmaceutical companies that they would cease producing vaccines amid such a precarious legal environment, President Reagan, in 1986, signed into law the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act. The mandatory no-fault compensation system established under the new legal regime shields vaccine makers from civil product liability, as it forces victims to file initial claims under a federal vaccine compensation program in which awarded damages are paid by taxpayers.
The law was a boon to vaccine manufacturers. The vaccine business, as the Wall Street Journal reports, was “transformed from a risky, low-profit venture in the 1970s, to one of the pharmaceutical industry’s most attractive product lines.” From $500 million in 1990, vaccine-industry revenues have grown to $24 billion today, expanding the pharmaceutical industry’s ability to enter into public-private partnerships, lobby for lower licensing standards for vaccines, and advocate against vaccine exemption laws.
Both the rate of vaccination and the rate of autism have spiked over the past three decades. From 23 doses of seven vaccines in 1983, the recommended immunization schedule has tripled to 69 doses of 16 vaccines, and Americans are now “required by law to use more vaccines than any other nation in the world.” What fuels vaccine hesitancy is the fact that, for several decades through the 1970s, childhood autism remained at a steady rate of about four in ten thousand children. After three decades of steady increases since the 1980s, however, the childhood autism rate, according to the CDC, has climbed to 1 in 68 or 1.5 percent.
Although the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a rebuttal to Trump’s critique, Trump has said that he “couldn’t care less” about the “shills” of conventional medical wisdom, the pharmaceutical companies, and their “fudged up reports.” In typical fashion, he declares that “the doctors lied” and that he is “being proven right about massive vaccinations.”
More influential to Trump than the medical establishment, it seems, is a dissident group of health practitioners, experts, and advocates. Trump has praised the efforts of Bob Wright, the founder and former chairman of Autism Speaks. And as a candidate, he met with a group of vaccine skeptics including:
- Mark Blaxill, editor-at-large of the web newspaper Age of Autism and author of three books on the subject as well as numerous articles in academic journals;
- Gary Kompothecras, a chiropractor who served on the Florida governor’s Autism Task Force;
- Jennifer Larson, CEO of the Holland Autism Center and Clinic and a board member on numerous autism and vaccine safety organizations; and
- Andrew Wakefield, an academic gastroenterologist whose controversial research on the MMR vaccine sparked a worldwide debate on possible links between immunization and autism.
All of these experts either have children with autism or were drawn to the field after personal encounters with parents who are certain that their children suffered from vaccine damage. This, as Kennedy remarked today, has made an impact on Trump.