Vaccination skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says he will oversee a presidential panel to review vaccine safety and science at the request of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump in a move likely to reignite debate despite now-debunked research that tied childhood immunizations to autism.
"President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policy, and he has questions about it," Kennedy, who has raised questions about the safety of vaccines, told reporters following a meeting with Trump in New York on Tuesday. "He asked me to chair a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity. I said I would."
However, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks later told Reuters that, while the president-elect was exploring the possibility of forming a committee on autism, "no decisions have been made at this time."
Kennedy, an environmentalist and lawyer, is the son of the late U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York and the nephew of assassinated Democratic President John F. Kennedy.
Vaccine experts decried the appointment of a vocal vaccine skeptic to explore the safety of vaccines and their purported link with autism, an association raised by a paper published in The Lancet in 1998 that claimed to find a connection between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.
That paper has been debunked, and The Lancet withdrew the study. Since then, numerous studies have affirmed the safety of the vaccine, most recently including a study of 100,000 children considered at high risk of developing autism.
"The concerns of public health officials and pediatricians and family doctors regarding the Trump administration and its
attitude toward vaccines have just been reinforced," said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, who advises the federal panel that sets U.S. vaccine policy.
Schaffner said Kennedy has "raised issues that have been settled securely and completely by good science, and 80,000 pediatricians, many family doctors and the World Health Organization all reinforce the current recommended childhood immunization schedule. They are safe and they are effective."
Nevertheless, concerns have persisted over a possible link between vaccines and autism spectrum disorder, a range of symptoms that often includes difficulties with communication and social interaction.
Dr. Kumanan Wilson, a public health researcher at The Ottawa Hospital, said vaccine proponents will now need to find a better way to address those concerns.
"Even if it doesn't change policy, it could have a huge impact on public confidence in vaccines. You only need to undermine vaccinations by five or 10 per cent to have a break in herd immunity," said Wilson.
The American Academy of Pediatrics quickly released a statement saying, "Vaccines are safe. Vaccines are effective. Vaccines save lives."
Daniel Johnson, an expert in pediatric infectious disease at University of Chicago Medicine, said he thought yet another investigation into vaccine safety was a waste of public money.
"There's already many systems in place to provide oversight, to record data, which is constantly being reviewed by many in government and the scientific community. There is no need for still yet another system for doing this," Johnson said.
He said he is "very concerned" that parents may delay getting their children vaccinated as they await the outcome of this panel, which could result in "increased harm, illness and potentially death" of children from diseases that could be prevented by vaccines.