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Trump’s reckless comments on vaccines reveal a startling lack of knowledge

One of the values of presidential debates is that they can occasionally offer a clear view of something that should be fundamental in a chief executive: knowing what he’s talking about. Last week, Donald Trump not only showed that he doesn’t, but that he is reckless with facts that can have grave consequences to individual and public health.

During Wednesday’s prime-time Republican debate, Trump parroted the uninformed, anti-science claptrap that vaccines cause autism. On the contrary, vaccines save lives. Without them, people are at risk of viruses that can be fatal or life-altering, and that can become epidemic. It happened in California this year.

Yet Trump, who brags about everything but has not mentioned any medical degree, told a story about an employee whose baby became feverish after a vaccine and, according to Trump, because autistic.

As dismaying as Trump’s careless comments were, in the end, they weren’t that surprising. Trump has devoted himself to claptrap in recent years, most notably in his brotherly alliance with the “birther” crowd – that collection of political zealots who insist, against all evidence, that President Obama was not born in this country. Trump has publicly gnawed on that bone over and over, utterly oblivious to the fact that he was revealing himself to be a man of extravagantly poor judgment.

But it’s one thing to say kooky things that get your name in the news and another altogether to spout medical misinformation that can have a harmful effect on human health. Case in point: A large measles outbreak that began in Disneyland last December was declared at an end only last month. Nearly 150 people were sickened, many of whom had not been immunized. Fortunately, no one died of a disease that’s easily prevented.

Is Trump purposely feeding the paranoia of the anti-government, anti-science crowd, or does he really believe what he is saying? In the end, it doesn’t much matter: Neither is desirable in a president.

It was sad, too, that two of the other candidates at the debate – Rand Paul and Ben Carson – didn’t offer a more wholehearted disagreement with Trump. Both men are doctors and, presumably, know better. But they temporized.

The 1998 report that supposedly found a link between childhood vaccines and autism has been thoroughly debunked. But science doesn’t seem to matter on this issue. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist from Tennessee, has spent years fighting the dangerous foolishness that Trump was spouting. Perhaps it will be a never-ending battle. Former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann made a similar claim against the vaccine for cervical cancer in her presidential campaign four years ago, also setting back the cause of public health.

It falls short of presidential.