Trump's Dangerous Vaccination Rhetoric

David Blankenhorn, Deseret News, 9/25/2015

With vaccines, Trump has identified yet another sore spot, a place of vulnerability and exposure. By adroitly pressing that spot — by probing a genuine fear with bravado and with reckless disregard for evidence and truth — he is getting what he wants, which is attention, including more people (like me) writing about him. But he is also making it more likely that some of our children will contract preventable diseases that can kill them. Shame on him.

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Subjects: Civil Society, Polarization

More by: David Blankenhorn

One day several years ago my doctor ended an appointment by urging me to take a flu vaccine. It’s smart and perfectly safe, he said. Let me give you the shot right now. I let him. That night I got the flu. I was sick for two weeks.

The next time I saw the doctor, I told him I believed that the vaccine had given me the flu. Impossible, he said. That never happens. People fret and speculate when they get sick, he said, but trust me — whatever your problem was, it wasn’t the vaccine.

I realize that my doctor was speaking for the entire medical establishment, but I didn’t trust that answer and I still don’t. I remain suspicious that the vaccine was a cause of my illness, and I don’t appreciate being handed certitudes that don’t jibe with my experience, even when the person doing it is wearing a lab coat.

So I have sympathy for the apparently growing number of parents today who worry, despite repeated assurances from their doctors, that vaccines can cause their children to develop autism — a neurological disorder that appears to be increasing among U.S. children. In medicine there is no such thing as “perfectly safe.” Every intervention, from swallowing an aspirin to going to the ER in the case of a heart attack, carries at least an extremely small risk of damaging side effects. Vaccines surely are no exception.

At the same time, I have no sympathy for what Donald Trump said during the recent Republican presidential candidates debate. He said he knew a “beautiful child” that got vaccinated “just the other day” and is now autistic. He told us that changing the standard schedule for childhood vaccinations would have “a big impact on autism.” Trump has been making these statements since at least 2007. He recently tweeted: “I am being proven right about massive vaccinations — the doctors lied.”

They did? Actually, they didn’t. The facts as we know them are these. Vaccines save millions of lives. They also make society as a whole healthier by making sure that vaccine-preventable diseases do not regain a foothold in society.

Researchers don’t know exactly what causes autism or why it appears to be increasing. It seems probable that greater awareness of the disorder, combined with improved diagnostic criteria, mean that more children who have the disorder are diagnosed and treated — which is surely a good thing, and nearly the opposite of what Trump implied when he called autism an “epidemic” that is now “out of control.”

A nearly unanimous scientific consensus is that there is no correlation between rates of vaccination and rates of autism. No credible scientific evidence suggests that vaccines can cause autism. The current recommended schedule for vaccinations is not arbitrary — it’s intended for the maximum protection of children — and there is no evidence that changing or weakening it will do anything other than put more children at needless risk.

No one can issue an absolute guarantee that no child who is vaccinated will ever experience a terrible side effect. But the overwhelming weight of evidence tells us that the risks of vaccines to the individual child are extraordinarily small, while the benefits of vaccines, to both the individual child and to society as a whole, are extraordinarily large.

Do Donald Trump’s comments matter? Trump himself seems to evaluate his performances almost exclusively in show-biz terms, as if the substantive consequences of what he says are hardly worth considering. He may be right. But I suspect that, in the case of vaccines, he is causing real harm to real people.

Trump says that he doesn’t waste his time studying the issues — that’s apparently unnecessary for a man of his brilliance — but when it comes to studying exploitable pockets of fear, Trump is a diligent student. He’s a connoisseur of our social anxieties, collecting them with care and selling them back to us for his political gain. Are our leaders morons? Was Obama even born in America? Are Mexicans coming here to rape and murder us? Are vaccines causing brain damage to our children?

With vaccines, Trump has identified yet another sore spot, a place of vulnerability and exposure. By adroitly pressing that spot — by probing a genuine fear with bravado and with reckless disregard for evidence and truth — he is getting what he wants, which is attention, including more people (like me) writing about him. But he is also making it more likely that some of our children will contract preventable diseases that can kill them. Shame on him.

David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values. You can follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.

This article originally appeared here.

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