Trump on vaccines: Is it time to activate the phone tree?

By Madeleine Harris Smith

Among the British medical community, there is a general consensus that the development of vaccines, and implementation of national vaccination programmes has been one of the greatest public health achievements in modern times.  Reports from across the pond of President Trump’s apparent scepticism about the safety of childhood vaccines, and rumours that he has approached prominent ‘anti-vaccine activist’, Robert F. Kennedy Jr to chair a panel on vaccine safety may therefore be met with some level of concern. 

Although the claims of a link between the MMR jab and autism have long since been debunked, media scare stories of the side effects of vaccines continue to pervade.  Most recently we saw celebrity Melinda Messenger appear on ‘This Morning’, talking about her decision not to allow her 13-year old daughter to receive the HPV vaccine.  Two well-respected GPs and Public Health England were on hand to highlight the lack of evidence behind her position, and point out the danger that her actions might lead to other teenage girls missing out on the potentially life-saving jab.

What the science says about vaccines

‘Life-saving’ is the key phrase there, because the scientific evidence is clear; vaccines save lives.  It’s estimated that vaccines annually prevent almost 6 million deaths worldwide, both among those directly receiving the vaccine, and those who are protected through the indirect effects of reduced disease among unimmunized individuals (‘herd immunity’).  Complications of diseases, which can lead to long term disability, such as congenital rubella syndrome, liver cirrhosis and cancer caused by chronic hepatitis B infection can also be prevented through immunisation.  And specific vaccines are also used to protect the most vulnerable groups in society, such as pregnant women, cancer patients and the immunocompromised.

Not to mention the eradication of small pox.

So, what’s the plan?

Thus far, the Huffington Post reports that the American public aren’t with Trump on this one, instead saying that the science supporting the safety of childhood vaccination is ‘indisputable’ by a more than 2-1 margin.

But public health officials worldwide are right to be apprehensive about Trump’s plans for vaccines.  As we so often see, scare mongering is a very effective influencer – one that’s contagious, dangerous and potentially deadly.  In 2014, an epidemic of measles spread across Wales was attributed to vaccine scepticism and between the 1980s and 2012, cases of whooping cough in the UK increased from 2,900 in the 1980s to 50,000, linked to false claims were made over links between vaccines and autism.  And the Irish Cancer Society has recently stated that at least 40 Irish women will die from cervical cancer after a “misinformation” campaign last year warned girls against getting vaccinated.

As a vastly influential figure, taking a negative stance on vaccines has the potential to devastate public health programmes, and to very quickly increase rates of disease, disability and death across the globe.  Since taking office however, the new American President hasn’t yet publicly spoken about vaccination, so for now, his plans remain unknown and we must hope he is taking the opportunity to reconsider his view.  Public health stakeholders should use the opportunity to ensure messaging on vaccine safety is up to date, activate the phone tree and prepare to speak with a unified voice should the worst happen and we see anti-vaccine rhetoric trump the indisputable evidence.