Last Night’s Republican Debate Was Literally a Public Health Risk

Donald Trump’s discredited theories about autism and vaccines caused a massive spike in Google searches.


At Wednesday night’s debate, GOP front-runner Donald Trump once again repeated the totally discredited—and incredibly dangerous—theory that vaccines cause autism. You can watch it above. Basically, everything Trump said about vaccines was wrong. A lot of what his opponents said was wrong, too.

What’s more, this barrage of misinformation appears to have caused a massive increase in Google searches about the supposed vaccine-autism connection. The spike on the Google Trends chart below occurred shortly after the exchange:

 

“Autism has become an epidemic,” Trump claimed. “Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of control.” Scientists dispute this: While it’s true that autism diagnoses have risen, a recent study suggested that the number of children with autism symptoms has remained stable. In other words, autism may not be getting more common; we’re just diagnosing it more often.

“I am totally in favor of vaccines,” Trump insisted, before adding, “but I want smaller doses over a longer period of time…I had my children taken care of over a long period of time, over a two- or three-year period of time. Same exact amount, but you take this little beautiful baby, and you pump—I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child, and we’ve had so many instances, people that work for me. Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.” By spreading out the vaccine schedule, Trump concluded, “I think you’re going to see a big impact on autism.”

Vaccines do not cause autism. Spreading out vaccines over a longer time period won’t make anyone safer, but it will put more children at risk of contracting vaccine-preventable diseases, as my colleague Kiera Butler has explained. And those diseases can be deadly. “When you delay vaccines, you increase the period of time in which you are susceptible to those diseases,” vaccine expert Paul Offit told the New York Times Thursday. “We are seeing the effects of that. The outbreak we saw this year in Southern California was among parents who had chosen to delay or withheld vaccines for their children.”

Two of Trump’s Republican rivals are doctors, but unfortunately they didn’t clear up the issue.

“We have extremely well-documented proof that there’s no autism associated with vaccinations,” explained Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon. But, he added, “it is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time.”

No, it’s not true.

“I’m all for vaccines, but I’m also for freedom,” said Rand Paul, a former ophthalmologist. “I’m also a little concerned about how they’re bunched up. My kids had all of their vaccines, and even if the science doesn’t say bunching them up is a problem, I ought to have the right to spread my vaccines out a little bit at the very least.” Paul, who has previously suggested that vaccines can cause “profound mental disorders,” has been an outspoken opponent of proposals to strengthen vaccination mandates.

For his part, moderator Jake Tapper noted that “the medical community adamantly disputes” Trump’s ideas about vaccines. But it’s fair to assume that many people confused by this exchange immediately turned to the internet for more information. Fortunately, Google’s top search results debunk Trump’s theories, but you don’t have to dig very far to find a number of websites promoting the vaccine-autism myth. After all, notorious vaccine critic Jenny McCarthy once explained that she began learning about autism at the “University of Google.”

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THE BIG QUESTION...

as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot.

Please read our annual column about the state of journalism and Mother Jones' plans for the year ahead, and help us build an alternative to oligarchy by supporting our people-powered journalism with a year-end gift today.

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