President-elect Donald Trump met with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a leading anti-vaccine activist, on Tuesday to discuss vaccination policy, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer said.
Kennedy drew fire last year for describing a "holocaust" of children allegedly hurt by immunization (he later apologized for the term), and both Trump and Kennedy have spread fringe theories linking vaccines to autism in children, an idea that medical experts overwhelmingly reject and have warned is endangering public health.
Trump tweeted several times in 2014 that the use of multiple vaccinations caused autism, claiming at one point "the doctors lied." Doctors and researchers who specialize in infectious diseases expressed concern after Trump and other candidates promoted the theory in a Republican debate in September 2015.
"Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, 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," Trump said at the time. He offered no details or evidence on the case.
Doctors trace the popular fear to a 1998 study in the British medical journal Lancet that the publication later retracted after discovering its lead author was involved in a lawsuit against drug companies and used flawed methods.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that there is no link between autism and vaccines, citing numerous subsequent studies. An Immunization Safety Commission organized by the Institute of Medicine examined the issue and reached the same conclusion in multiple reports. The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned that spacing out vaccinations increases childhood exposure to disease and that doctors should follow the recommended schedule. But the theory persists, aided by celebrity advocates and even some within the medical field.
Experts have expressed fears that this small but vocal group of doubters is helping fuel outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles in communities where parents decline to vaccinate their children.
Trump has generally been skeptical of scientific expertise, however. He has repeatedly claimed the overwhelming body of research linking climate change to human activities is a hoax.
He is one of several politicians to draw rebukes from medical experts in recent years for entertaining vaccination and autism links. Former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann claimed an HPV vaccine caused a child to become "retarded" after a Republican debate in 2011. More recently, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Dr. Ben Carson, a surgeon, also raised concerns that too many vaccines pose a danger.
In 2008, then-candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain indicated to activists concerned about the issue that they supported research into the matter. Obama and Clinton later said that the science was settled and urged families to vaccinate their children.