Tennessee Republican congressman criticized after baseless comment linking vaccines and autism

/ CBS/AP

Mark Green, a newly elected GOP congressman from Tennessee who is also a medical doctor, received criticism from top state leaders for alleging without evidence that vaccines may cause autism.

"Let me say this about autism," Green said in a town hall on Tuesday. "I have committed to people in my community, up in Montgomery County, to stand on the (Centers for Disease Control) desk and get the real data on vaccines. Because there is some concern that the rise in autism is the result of the preservatives that are in our vaccines."

Green was responding to a question from a mother who has a child with autism asking about Medicaid spending cuts.

The Republican has since walked back his comments, issuing a statement saying that his comments were misconstrued and that his own children have been vaccinated.

"Recent comments I made at a town hall regarding vaccines has been misconstrued. I want to reiterate my wife and I vaccinated our children, and we believe, and advise others they should have their children vaccinated," the statement said.

The CDC has clearly stated there is no link between vaccines and autism.

However, his remarks received national attention and concerns from health officials worried about potential negative impacts. And by Thursday, Tennessee Department of Health issued a brief but direct statement: "Vaccines do not cause autism. Vaccines save lives."

"The Tennessee Department of Health welcomes discussion with Tennessee clinicians and scientists who would like to examine the evidence on this topic," the statement continued.

That came just hours after Tennessee GOP U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander tweeted a similar statement, complete with an attachment of a video of him praising the benefits of vaccines during a congressional hearing.

"Sound science is this," Alexander says in the video. "Vaccines save lives. They save the lives of people that are vaccinated. They protect the lives of the vulnerable around them, like infants and those who are ill."

Neither statement mentioned Green. Health Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hart declined to elaborate, saying the agency's statement spoke for itself.

Green did not immediately respond to an email request from The Associated Press for comment on the subsequent responses.

The Republican, who is not only a doctor but also a former Army surgeon, businessman and cancer survivor, soundly defeated Democrat Justin Kanew in November. He withdrew as President Trump's nominee for Army secretary earlier this year amid criticism of his comments about gay and transgender people.

He is scheduled to be sworn-in on January 3.

First published on December 14, 2018

© 2018 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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