Republican Debate Highlights Misinformation about Autism-Vaccine "Connection"

Last night's Republican primary debate provided further evidence that many people still believe that autism is caused by vaccines.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and others, including prominent physicians, have decried the general misinformation that continues to be rampant concerning the “connection” between vaccinations and autism. The misinformation was on full display during last night’s second Republican primary debate.

Even with two doctors on the Republican panel—noted pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson and ophthalmologist Rand Paul—the current Republican front-runner Donald Trump was only weakly taken to task for his repetition of the following debunked trope: “Autism has become an epidemic,” Trump said. “Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of control.”

He continued: “You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump — I mean, it looks just like it is meant for a horse, not for a child, and we had so many instances, people that work for me, just the other day, 2 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.”

Perhaps as troubling as the inaccurate information is the fact that it shows how deeply entrenched the misconception is, and highlights the danger it could present if a nominee who could one day be in charge of the National Institutes of Health believes in it. Much of the pseudoscience “connecting” vaccines and autism stems from a since-discredited and —retracted 1998 Lancet study by physician-researcher Andrew Wakefield, who was shown to have manipulated his study results, likely for personal gain, and subsequently lost his medical license.

Since that time, many sources have successfully challenged the potential connection between vaccines and autism, including prominent large-scale studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2015) and the New England Journal of Medicine (2002), among many others. An article published in the Wall Street Journal just yesterday that made a strong case that, “The number of children diagnosed with autism has surged around the globe in the past two decades. But new research in Europe and the US suggests much of the increase occurred on paper.”

The ASAN statement, distributed before the podiums were cold, was particularly strong. “Despite a wealth of scientific evidence debunking any link between autism and vaccinations, tonight’s Republican primary debate featured prominent commentary from a leading candidate repeating inaccurate information suggesting a link,” the statement opened. “…Long after the science has spoken, politicians and pundits continue to focus on causation, distracting from the real and pressing issues facing the autistic community. Politicians continue to talk about an autism epidemic—despite the fact that the science suggests that autism has always existed at its current rate within the general population. Autistic people are not new—and neither are our unmet needs. Unfortunately, those who focus on causation choose to push those needs aside.”

Offered a chance to strongly rebut Trump’s inference of a connection, Carson said: “Well, let me put it this way, there have been numerous studies, and they have not demonstrated that there is any correlation between vaccinations and autism.” Paul, for his part, settled for the pithy but tepid, “I’m all for vaccines, but I’m also for freedom.”

Physicians took to Twitter and other outlets to decry Trump’s assertion and castigate the other debate participants for not debunking it with more authority. But the opportunity to directly confront and strongly contradict Trump in front of a national television audience on network CNN was more or less missed.

“While no link exists between autism and vaccines, of greater concern is the willingness of those who promote this theory to suggest that exposing children to deadly diseases would be a better outcome than an autistic child,” the ASAN statement concludes. “Vaccinations do not cause autism—but the use of autism as a means of scaring parents from safeguarding their children from life-threatening illness demonstrates the depths of prejudice and fear that still surrounds our disability. Autism is not caused by vaccines—and Autistic Americans deserve better than a political rhetoric that suggests that we would be better off dead than disabled.”