As you’ve likely heard or seen, there was a “debate” about vaccination at the GOP presidential debate on CNN Sept. 16. I happened to be watching the debate, half-watching, half-working while I sat on my couch at home. It caught my attention when I heard the question posed to Dr. Ben Carson about whether Mr. Donald Trump should stop saying that vaccines cause autism.
You see, there are many things to debate in politics. There are many ideas about how policies should be framed and implemented in this country — and for the vast majority of these issues, the solution is likely some combination of great ideas and innovative solutions. We can’t know for certain what the one correct answer is for many issues — our governmental officials and we as citizens base our judgments on past experiences, expert advice, various forms of evidence and our best decision-making ability. In other words, there are many ideas that we should debate.
The key difference between those issues, and the issue of vaccination, is this: there exists a known truth on this matter. The highest level of scientific evidence available tells us there is no detectable link between autism and childhood vaccination. Regardless of how the scientific community looks at the data, conducts rigorous studies, compares the numbers across demographics, regions, time periods, nations — there are no studies that find a link. There are many scientific questions that have yet to be answered; we will always need research to help us answer those questions. The issue of vaccination and autism, however, is one area where there is no longer “debate.” The answer is clear — vaccinations do not cause autism. This false belief, however, is in fact causing harm to our children and our communities.
As the U.S. continues to deal with an increasing number of vaccine-preventable outbreaks, it becomes increasingly important that the voice of public health is heard. Last night Dr. Carson (and Dr. Rand Paul as well) had the opportunity to point millions of people to public health. They were in a position of authority on that stage and had the opportunity to potentially influence the health and safety of families and communities throughout the country.
Parents and patients who refuse vaccinations tend to do so because of concerns about vaccine effectiveness and safety. They have misconceptions about “overwhelming the immune system,” fears about side effects and distrust in the medical system. These misconceptions and fears were only amplified last night when Mr. Trump so emphatically stated that he personally witnessed a “beautiful child” who received vaccinations and then “became autistic,” and when Dr. Paul suggested that people opt for an alternate vaccine schedule. The fact is that children receive vaccinations for 14 diseases, 13 of which can lead to death, and one (mumps) of which can lead to deafness and sterility for men. As we continue to debate issues — let’s debate the issues that warrant debate. The nonexistent link between autism and vaccination is not one of those issues.