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Mayo Clinic doc: Trump has 'community on edge' over vaccines

The majority of Americans still believe the benefits of childhood vaccines outweigh the risks, even as a skeptic — Donald Trump — has ascended to the presidency.

The two factions have exchanged harsh words in recent months, debating whether vaccines are to blame for a rise in the incidence of autism during the past 20 years, which some have begun calling an epidemic.

Brad and Joan Trahan, of Rochester, are among those who have welcomed increased scrutiny of vaccinations. They say their son, Reece, a 17-year-old sophomore at Century, became autistic after receiving a mumps, measles and rubella vaccine when he was 1, echoing similar stories shared by Trump while on the campaign trail.

The couple responded by splitting up the MMR shot for their daughter and founding the RT Autism Awareness Foundation in 2003, becoming some of the state's most vocal autism advocates.

"I respect the medical community … but as a parent, my flags are up," said Brad, a Trump supporter. "No one can tell us to this day with medical certainty that it's not from vaccinations.

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"This is a bipartisan issue. For any president to say we need to research this more, we need to put the full-court press on this, I totally support that. I saw it with my own son. I'm not a wing nut. We have to figure out what the heck is going on. It's the fastest growing disability in the country."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2016 that 1 in 68 children are now diagnosed with autism. That number is up from 1 in 150 in 2000. Rochester Public Schools has 275 students enrolled with autism, according to communications director Heather Nessler.

A 2014 Harvard study suggests autism-related health care and education cost Americans $11 billion in 2011. Some believe that number could hit $1 trillion by 2025.

Experts on both sides of the debate readily admit those numbers are concerning, but a chasm-level divide exists when discussing whether vaccines are to blame.

Medical personnel at Mayo Clinic, Rochester Epidemiology Project, Minnesota Department of Health and elsewhere routinely dismiss the alleged connection between vaccines and autism as — to use today's popular vernacular — "fake news." The 1998 study that first raised that alleged connection has been formally retracted, and its author, London's Andrew Wakefield, lost his medical license in 2010.

Newsweek says Wakefield remains "revered and reviled" by the two factions, but his claims have been so widely debunked — including by a 2005 REP study completed in Rochester — that Mayo Clinic Dr. Robert Jacobson says "it's strange that people are still questioning the safety" of vaccines.

Wakefield's fraudulent report remains a primary influencer nearly two decades later, and measles has become a problem again — 667 cases in 2014 — after the CDC declared it was eradicated in the U.S. in 2000 .

"Now with a populist president who has met with some of the most rabid anti-vaccinists, that has a lot of people on edge," Jacobson said.

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Trump breathed new life into Wakefield's controversial study by inviting him to his presidential inauguration and meeting with Robert Kennedy Jr. to discuss creating a Vaccine Safety Commission. Kennedy, another anti-vaxxer, edited a book that argues some vaccines cause autism.

Additionally, nearly 300 U.S. doctors and scientists recently signed a letter urging Trump to convene an "independent vaccine safety commission." It was delivered to the White House on March 31, just before the calendar flipped to Autism Awareness Month.

While most medical experts dismiss the anti-vax movement, the Trahans hope Trump's presidency will help provide clarity on the debate.

"As much as the medical community says (vaccines and autism aren't related), I hope they don't dismiss us as whacked out parents," Brad said. "It's an emotional topic … and I don't want any of us to get too dug in because we need to figure out what's going on and how to fix it."

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