Dissecting Trump: Understanding The Vaccine Debate

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Dissecting Trump: Understanding The Vaccine Debate

Among the many conspiracy theories in President Trump’s arsenal—Fake News!, whatever “chaos” is happening (or rather not happening) in Sweden—is his insistence there is a connection between autism and vaccines. He’s made this scientifically rebuked connection in his speeches, tweets and even during the presidential debates. So it should come as no surprise that the notorious anti-vaxxer isn’t swaying from his beliefs now that he’s president.

In a recent conversation with educators and the new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Trump reiterated his concerns, “So what’s going on with autism?” he asked a teacher in the audience. “When you look at the tremendous increase, it’s really — it’s such an incredible — it’s really a horrible thing to watch, the tremendous amount of increase.” He added: “Maybe we can do something.”

And President Trump will try. Apparently, a commission on “vaccine safety” is in the works, and he’s supposedly tapped vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr., to head it.

President Trump’s embrace of these discredited theories—like Wakefield’s—has energized, and even normalized, the anti-vaccine movement. With conflicting information about the “vaccine debate,” which, according to most scientists shouldn’t even be up for debate, coming from the U.S. President, here’s pretty much everything you need to know about vaccines.


Point: Vaccines save lives, millions and millions of lives.

It could be argued that vaccines might be the most successful medical innovation of modern times. Globally, vaccines prevent the deaths of 2-3 million people every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that vaccinations “will prevent more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among children born in the last 20 years” and that, from 1994 to 2014, vaccinations prevented 322 million cases of childhood illnesses.

Smallpox, once the world’s most deadly disease, no longer exists due to vaccines, with the last case occurring in the U.S. in 1949. Similarly, polio is on the verge of eradication. Thanks to targeted global efforts, polio has been stopped in all countries except for three: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. That said, perhaps due to parents not vaccinating their children, strains of polio have been imported into formerly eradicated countries, which leads to the next point …


Point: Vaccines protect “the herd.”

When a herd of cattle travel, they always travel in a group because predators are less likely to attack groups than individuals. This idea also applies to the protection of people against diseases. The more members of a community who are vaccinated against a disease, the safer the community will be from the spread of that disease. For example, if most people in a region are vaccinated against mumps, then it’s less likely those without a vaccination will catch mumps.

What this means? Protect the herd—your neighbors, country, etc.—by getting vaccinated. See, herd immunity is vital with extremely contagious diseases like measles, where immunization of 90 to 95 percent of infants is needed to protect the entire community. To maintain herd immunity thresholds (i.e. what percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated to prevent outbreaks), child vaccination rates need to rage from 75 percent to 95 percent for the most common diseases preventable—e.g. Diphtheria, measles, pertussis.

The major issue with an anti-vaxxer president is the potential for politicization of vaccines. What happens if your political identity shapes your position on vaccines? All it takes is for a small segment of Trump’s supporters to be persuaded by his anti-vax rhetoric, choose not to vaccinate their children, which could then lead to a disastrous, lethal disease outbreak that could easily have been prevented.


Point: Know that “adverse reactions” are extremely rare.

Anti-vaxxers like Trump often point to the “adverse reactions” caused by vaccines. This could be an allergic reaction or, according to Trump and Robert Kennedy Jr., autism. The major flaw in this argument is that most anti-vaxxers fail to relay just how rare these “reactions” occur. According to the Department of Human Health and Services, “Vaccines are some of the safest medical products available.” Additionally, severe allergic reactions occur in only 1 out of every 100,000 doses, and a 2015 CDC report noted that, out of 25 million vaccinations, only 33 people had a serious reaction—roughly 1.3 out of one million. To put these number in perspective, you are more likely to die from fireworks, get struck by lightning, or get mauled by a bear whilst hiking.

To those still propagating the bold, bold claim, based on a study that’s been debunked by the entire science community, that vaccines are connected to autism. Just read any of the following scientific studies, conducted by the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Institutes for Health, and the Institute of Medicine, who all—every last one of ‘em—concluded that there is no link between vaccines and autism.

Top photo by Carlos Reusser Monsalvez

Tom Burson is a travel writer, part-time hitchhiker, and he’s currently trying to imitate Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? but with more sunscreen and jorts.

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