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The Most Dangerous Part of CNN’s GOP Debate

A tussle between Donald Trump and Ben Carson on vaccines spread some deadly mistruths.

Nope, not the plane. (Though what would have happened had that thing taken off around hour two?) The most dangerous part of last night’s Republican presidential debate was a not-quite-five minute exchange between businessman Donald Trump and neurosurgeon Ben Carson.


It concerned science, medicine, and health, and it didn’t have to be this way. Ben Carson graduated from Yale University, then the University of Michigan Medical School, finally completing his residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the best in the country. In short, Carson should have known better.

And yet, when Trump disseminated some perilously false medical information about links between vaccines and childhood autism, Carson stopped short of correcting him.

Here’s the relevant anec-data, from Trump:

[W]e’ve had so many instances [of autism]. People that work for me, just the other day, two-year-old, two-and-a-half-year-old—a beautiful child—went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever—got very, very sick—and now its autistic. … I’m in favor of vaccines, [but] do it over longer period of time. The same amount, but do it in little sections. I think you’re going to see a big impact on autism rates.

Then the response, from Doctor Carson:

[Trump is] an OK doctor. [laughs] But you know the fact of the matter is we have extremely well documented proof that there’s no autism associated with vaccinations. But it is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time.

That tepid, jocular response was not enough. It was also wrong. Indeed, scientists have found no documented link between autism and vaccines, but there’s also no indication that the “period of time” between shots causes health problems in children. Sure, sticking needles in kids is viscerally unpleasant, but the science has been affirmed by numerous studies released year after year after year.

Delaying or outright skipping vaccines has deadly consequences, leaving young children susceptible to dangerous diseases for longer amounts of time. A measles outbreak traced back to Disneyland sickened at least 125 people earlier this year; scientists said delayed and withheld vaccinations were to blame. In 2010, the worst whooping cough outbreak in 60 years killed 10 infants. A study later blamed voluntary, “nonmedical” vaccine exemptions for the widespread sickness.

via flickr user European Commission DG ECHO

And yet, a 2012 Oregon study found that more and more parents are choosing to follow Carson and Trump’s lead—against doctor’s advice. Between 2005 and 2009, the number of Oregon children following alternative vaccine schedules increased, from 2.5 percent to 9.5 percent.

"The problem that we saw is that these kids are getting fewer shots total and they're not catching up," a researcher told Reuters. "Parents and doctors don't realize how easy it is for kids on alternative schedules to fall behind.”

In short, some kids who don’t receive regularly scheduled vaccines don’t actually end up protected against disease.

When the most public conversation on this vital medical issue is based on politicians slinging crazy anecdotes and junk science from nearly 20 years ago, the country is in big trouble. At least we’ll always have Ronald Reagan’s sweet plane.

Cover image via youtube screencapture

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