What Barack Obama said about autism and vaccines in 2008

Then-candidate Barack Obama discussed vaccines and autism at a 2008 campaign event, but some have misconstrued his words.

Measles, along with other childhood infectious diseases, made a comeback at the start of 2015 after years of plummeting in the United States. Many experts believe the shift has been driven by parents choosing not to vaccinate their children.

With vaccines back in the news, so are politicians’ thoughts on whether immunizations should be required.

Some families don’t vaccinate on religious grounds, but many others don’t because of fears about autism. Scientists, however, have long objected to the argument that vaccines can cause autism, saying there’s no evidence for it.

Two Republican presidential candidates -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul -- recently made comments that seemed to defend, and perhaps even applaud, the right of parents not to vaccinate their kids.

While Paul did tout the health benefits of vaccinations, and while Christie’s office quickly clarified that "with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated," the two politicians’ tone contrasted with a full-throated endorsement of vaccinations made by President Barack Obama.

"I understand that there are families that in some cases are concerned about the effect of vaccinations," Obama told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. "The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. We've looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren't reasons to not."

However, critics of Obama accused him of flip-flopping, calling attention to a 2008 exchange in which the then-candidate seemed to suggest there were legitimate concerns that vaccinations and autism could be linked.

The exchange occurred on April 21, 2008, in Blue Bell, Pa. Here’s a transcript of the relevant portion:

"We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Nobody knows exactly why. There are some people who are suspicious that it’s connected to vaccines and triggers, but -- this person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it. Part of the reason I think it's very important to research it is those vaccines are also preventing huge numbers of deaths among children and preventing debilitating illnesses like polio. And so we can't afford to junk our vaccine system. We've got to figure out why is it that this is happening so that we are starting to see a more normal, what was a normal, rate of autism. Because if we keep on seeing increases at the rate we're seeing we're never going to have enough money to provide all the special needs, special education funding that's going to be necessary."

Two portions of Obama’s comments stand out. One is the assertion that "some people" have suspicions about a connection, "this person included." The other is Obama’s statement that "the science right now is inconclusive."

There’s enough murkiness in interpreting what Obama meant almost seven years ago that we’re not putting this claim to the Truth-O-Meter or the Flip-O-Meter. Still, we’ll look at whether these statements demonstrate that Obama in 2008 -- in contrast to today -- was entertaining the possibility that vaccinations might be causing autism. For further context, we’ll also look at the state of knowledge about the vaccine-autism link when Obama spoke in 2008.

Obama’s statement that "some people" have suspicions, "this person included"

This is the easier of Obama’s two statements to clarify. Watching the video, as opposed to just reading the transcript, it becomes clear that Obama did not mean himself when he said, "this person included." Instead, he clearly points to a member of the audience, and when he does, light chuckling can be heard from those assembled.

Obama’s statement that "the science right now is inconclusive"

This claim could serve as a smoking gun for those who would posit an Obama flip-flop on vaccinations -- but that’s only one interpretation, and not necessarily the most obvious one.

While it’s possible that Obama meant to say the science about a vaccine-autism link is "inconclusive," it’s at least as likely, if not more likely, that Obama meant the "inconclusive" label to refer to the science on why there is a "skyrocketing autism rate," a topic about which he said "nobody knows exactly why."

And there’s further evidence that Obama didn’t use the forum to promote the conclusion that vaccines might be causing autism. In 2008, Obama's campaign put out a detailed position paper on autism, and it made no mention of vaccines. Instead, it mentioned legislation that Obama had supported to establish an education program for diagnosing autism using "evidence-based practices." The paper also pledged to increase funding for autism (a promise we rated Compromise on the Obameter).

How solid was the scientific consensus against a vaccine-autism link in 2008?

It’s worth noting that Obama’s 2008 comments predated by two years a significant milestone in the vaccine-autism debate -- the 2010 retraction of a paper in the Lancet, a respected British science journal, that was the first and most prominent to posit such a link. The paper, published in 1998, was retracted after its editors concluded that it was fraudulent and was based on bad science.

Still, this isn’t to say that the study hadn’t been seriously questioned before 2010. The experts we checked with said that the theory was believed to be wrong even then; they portrayed the Lancet retraction as just icing on the cake.

Marie McCormick, a Harvard professor of maternal and child health who has been involved in several Institute of Medicine studies of the autism-vaccine link, said the evidence against a link had become convincing as long ago as 2001.

That year, an IOM report concluded that the evidence did not support an association between vaccination and autism. Three years later, in 2004, another IOM report on vaccines and autism looked at 14 epidemiologic studies; once again, the authors concluded that there was no evidence of an association. In 2011, a third IOM report looked at five of the most rigorous studies, and each found no linkage.

"I think that the data were pretty firm as of 2004," McCormick said. "The rigorous studies were consistent in showing no association, and those showing associations were deemed deeply  methodologically flawed."

Other scientists we contacted agreed with McCormick’s take.

Robert Heimer, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, said that even though the Lancet paper hadn’t been retracted in 2008, its conclusion "had never been replicated in any study, its findings were already discounted by almost all experts, and allegations of fraud were already emerging."

Thomas Fekete, the section chief for infectious diseases at the Temple University School of Medicine, agreed. When Obama was speaking in 2008, he said, "there was no mainstream belief that this connection made any sense. However, it has become even clearer in 2015 with more time, more data and the scary (reemergence) of real measles that vaccine hesitancy is unhelpful, does not protect kids and threatens herd immunity."

The fact that the Lancet paper hadn't been formally retracted by 2008 "is basically a technicality," added Seth Mnookin, associate director of the graduate program in science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy.

"It wasn't officially retracted until an ongoing investigation in the U.K. was completed," Mnookin said. "By 2008, there had been studies involving millions of children, all of which emphatically resulted in the same conclusion: there was absolutely zero connection between autism and the MMR vaccine."