Trump appears to dial back from vaccine skeptic nod

Washington (AFP) - US President-elect Donald Trump's transition team appeared to dial back from naming noted vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr to lead a committee on vaccines safety, officials said.

Earlier in the day, Trump met with Kennedy, a prominent environmentalist who has authored a book about his concerns that ingredients in childhood vaccines may cause autism -- a notion long debunked by the scientific community.

After that meeting, Kennedy told reporters Trump had asked him to head a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity, and the 62-year-old son of slain senator Bobby Kennedy and nephew of late president John F. Kennedy said he had agreed.

"He asked me to chair a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity," Kennedy said after the meeting, which he said Trump had called and requested.

"I said I would."

Kennedy said the job would be to "make sure we have scientific integrity in the vaccine process for efficacy and safety."

But Tuesday evening, Trump's transition team issued a statement saying that no such decision had been made.

The statement also referred to the committee in question as one on autism, not vaccine safety.

"The President-elect enjoyed his discussion with Robert Kennedy Jr. on a range of issues and appreciates his thoughts and ideas," the statement said.

"The President-elect is exploring the possibility of forming a commission on autism, which affects so many families; however no decisions have been made at this time."

- Doubts expressed -

Both Kennedy and Trump have expressed concerns that childhood vaccinations could lead to autism.

"Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it," Kennedy told reporters.

"His opinion doesn't matter but the science does matter and we ought to be reading the science and we ought to be debating the science," he added.

"Everybody ought to be able to be assured that the vaccines that we have -- he's very pro-vaccine, as am I -- but they're as safe as they possibly can be."

Kennedy authored a 2014 book describing the dangers of the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal in vaccines.

At a film screening in California in 2015 he expressed mistrust of public health officials who say vaccines are safe for children.

"They get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone," Kennedy said, according to a report at the time in the Sacramento Bee.

"This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country."

- Long ago debunked -

Such fears have spread online in recent years, fueled in part by celebrity attention, and by the fact that doctors don't fully understand what causes autism, leading some parents to connect the sudden onset of the brain disorder with the series of visits to the doctor for vaccinations in childhood.

Trump has repeatedly suggested a link between vaccines and autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

He tweeted in 2014: "Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn't feel good and changes - AUTISM. Many such cases!"

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that multiple studies in recent years have shown no link between receiving vaccines and developing autism.

A 2011 Institute of Medicine report on eight vaccines given to children and adults "found that with rare exceptions, these vaccines are very safe."

Furthermore, nine CDC studies since 2003 have found "no link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and ASD, as well as no link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism spectrum disorder in children," the federal agency said.

Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, thimerosal has been removed or reduced to trace amounts in all childhood vaccines except for some flu vaccines, the CDC has said, describing the move as a "precaution."

Georgetown University professor of family medicine Ranit Mishori told AFP the news of Kennedy's role was seen as a "nightmare" for doctors who have fought a surge of vaccine skepticism among parents in recent years, amid resurgent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like pertussis and measles with sometimes fatal consequences.

"This helps stoke a lot of unnecessary fear and it is anti-science. We have been there, we have looked at it. The science is extremely solid on this," she said.

Kennedy "is known to be a person who believes that vaccines cause harm and it sounds like he won't be satisfied until this is proven in one way or another," she added.

"Unfortunately, that is not how science works."