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Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --Sen. John Milkovich, D-Shreveport, top, chats with Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, bottom, on the Senate floor during during the second special legislative session Tuesday.

A sitting Louisiana legislator linked vaccines to autism on the floor of the State Senate Monday, perpetuating a long-debunked theory on which officials have blamed a recent resurgence of measles.

State Sen. John Milkovich, a Shreveport Democrat, used a bill that would expand a voluntary statewide immunization database as an opportunity to launch into a diatribe about vaccines, which he suggested are dangerous and cause autism.

Vaccines, which do not cause autism, are “incredibly well studied” because of the “myths” surrounding their links with autism, said Dr. Joe Kanter, assistant state health officer with the Louisiana Department of Health.

“We’re trying really hard to counter that with outreach and education,” Kanter said.

Milkovich claimed “autism did not exist” when he was growing up, and that “tissue from aborted babies is now used in vaccines.” He also suggested aluminum and mercury in vaccines are dangerous.

“Many of you may know some of the leading researchers in America say that autism is a result of vaccination,” Milkovich said. “Did you know tissue from aborted babies is now used in vaccines. Did you know that vaccines use aluminum which is shown to be a neurotoxin? Did you know vaccines in America is preserved often with mercury, which is beyond neurotoxic?”

Asked about his comments after the Senate adjourned Monday evening, Milkovich said “at this time I have no further comment than what I said on the Senate floor.” No other senators spoke up about vaccines following Milkovich’s speech.

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One of the components of vaccines Milkovich appeared to be referring to is a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal, on which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded nine studies that have found “no link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and (autism), as well as no link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and ASD in children," according to the CDC website. 

State Sen Regina Barrow, a Baton Rouge Democrat who brought the bill to which Milkovich was objecting, said immunizations for things like measles and polio have “transformed medicine.” She said she decided not to speak up against Milkovich’s comments because she couldn’t remember the specific data that debunked his comments.

The number of U.S. measles cases has risen to more than 700 so far this year, the largest number since six years before measles was declared eliminated in 2000, according to the CDC. The agency has several studies posted to its website showing vaccines do not cause autism. 

The resurgence in measles has been driven by misinformation linking vaccines and autism, causing people to go unvaccinated, federal officials have said. President Donald Trump, who has previously cast doubt on vaccines, recently urged Americans to get vaccinated to prevent the spread of measles. 

Kanter said the measles outbreak has not yet hit Louisiana, but he said state officials are monitoring it closely. Two cases were reported in Louisiana around a year ago.

“The message is that vaccines are safe, they’re incredibly well-studied,” and that people should get health information from their doctor, Kanter said.

Milkovich's speech Monday was not the first time he has publicly linked vaccines to autism. An apparent conspiracy account on Youtube posted a video in 2017 of Milkovich giving a similar diatribe on the Senate floor during the debate over another one of Barrow’s bills.

Follow Sam Karlin on Twitter, @samkarlin.