The president just elevated a dangerous anti-vaxxer talking point

“So what’s going on with autism?”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos listens at right as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with parents and teachers, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos listens at right as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with parents and teachers, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Trump pushed an anti-vaxxer talking point while meeting with educators at the White House on Tuesday.

“Have you seen a big increase in the autism with the children?” Trump asked Jane Quenneville, the principle of a Virginia public school that specializes in special education. Quenneville responded that she had.

Trump continued: “So what’s going on with autism? When you look at the tremendous increase, it’s really such an incredible — it’s really a horrible thing to watch, the tremendous amount of increase. Do you have any idea?”

When Quenneville cited the statistics on autism — putting them at one in 66 or one in 68 children being diagnosed — Trump implied these numbers were optimistic, suggesting the actual rate was higher.

“Well, maybe we can do something,” Trump said.

There’s no credible evidence that this is the case. The most recent data from the CDC, released last March, shows that one in 68 school-aged children are diagnosed with autism. That rate is unchanged from the previous year.

Trump’s claim of a “tremendous increase” in autism rates isn’t backed up by the data — but it is a favorite talking point of the anti-vaccine movement, which the president just broadcast on the highest stage.

The point is compelling on a surface level, because it’s based on a rise in diagnoses of autism since the 1990s. Experts, however, point out that a raise in diagnoses does not necessarily correlate with a raise in actual rates.

“The major source of the increase that started in the 1990s was broadened diagnostic criteria and much more public awareness of what autism looks like,” Steve Silberman, an autism expert and the author of NeuroTribes, told New York Magazine. “The consensus is that there has been no huge, startling, ‘horrible,’ as Trump said, increase in autism.”

Anti-vaxxers, however, often push the uncorroborated claim that there has been such an increase — and point to vaccines as the culprit. That bogus link originated in the 1990s in a now-thoroughly discredited scientific report. The article was officially retracted after it became clear that the conclusion was based on shoddy research and manipulated data. Still, the debunked link between vaccines and autism has persisted ever since.

This has real consequences for public health. Public safety relies on what’s called “herd immunity.” Essentially, for any vaccine to be effective against an outbreak, a high percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated.

A high rate of vaccination keeps diseases from spreading rapidly, and also helps protect those who can’t be vaccinated — such as young children, the very elderly, or those with allergies to vaccines.

But now, with the anti-vaccine movement pushing confusing, pseudoscientific claims, the rate of vaccinations in children has been dropping. And with Trump as president, experts are worried that the movement may grow even stronger.

Trump has sent signals to the anti-vaccine community before. In January, he met with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is a prominent anti-vaccine activist. Kennedy told reporters afterwards that Trump wanted him to “chair a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity.”

And Trump himself has a long history of making public statements linking vaccines to autism.

On Tuesday, Trump didn’t speculate about the supposed dangers of vaccines. But by publicly doubting the official statistics about autism rates, and by parroting a common anti-vaxxer talking point, he nonetheless elevated one of the bases of a dangerous pseudoscience conspiracy theory.