Tech + Health

07.23.14

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Twisted Anti-Vaxx History

Despite multiple studies showing no link between vaccines and autism, RFK Jr. continues to use his position to spread that lie. What will it take to make him stop?

If you’re headed to Capitol Hill with a cause, it helps to be a Kennedy.

For Robert Kennedy Jr., scion of America’s most storied political family, all it takes is his name to arrange face-to-face meetings with two powerful Senators. As a physician who has traveled to Washington, D.C., with health-care advocacy groups on a number of occasions, I envy the access he displays in a recent profile in The Washington Post. The best we mere doctors usually hope for is time with aides of varying seniority.

Given the ease with which he moves through the corridors of power, one might wish that Kennedy would use his time wisely. Sadly, that is not the case. As Keith Kloor reports, he spends his meetings with Senators Barbara Mikulski and Bernie Sanders making the case that thimerosal (a component in vaccines, now scarcely used) is linked to autism.

This is not true. The possible link between thimerosal and autism has been investigated and found not to exist in study after study after study. The American Academy of Pediatrics gladly provides evidence [pdf] from around the globe that demonstrates no causal relationship between exposure to thimerosal and developing autism. Despite never having been a link between the two, the ingredient was removed from childhood vaccines entirely in 2003 out of caution, though it is occasionally still used in some flu vaccines. 

But none of this stops Kennedy from trafficking in slander and nonsense. As the Post article makes painfully clear, for years he has been perfectly happy to accuse researchers and public health officials of fraud. After being called out for this in Slate last year, he called editor Laura Helmuth to complain, telling her “scientists and government agencies are conspiring with the vaccine industry to cover up the evidence that thimerosal is ‘the most potent brain killer imaginable.’”

This is how medical conspiracies start and what keeps them going. A man like Kennedy leverages his family legacy to promulgate misinformation that researchers with much more sense and infinitely more integrity have debunked. Sure, I can counsel concerned parents that none of the childhood vaccines I will be administering contain thimerosal. But if the scientists who aver that they have always been safe have been committing fraud, then who’s to say the remaining evidence is sound?

A man like Kennedy leverages his family legacy to promulgate misinformation that researchers with much more sense and infinitely more integrity have debunked.

The Centers for Disease Control conducted many of the studies Kennedy attacks, and were quick to defend their researchers and methods.

“CDC’s studies are done according to best practices in public health research and are held to high standards of scientific rigor,” said Cindy Weinbaum, MD, the senior advisor for Vaccine Programs in CDC’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, in an email to The Daily Beast. “CDC studies are reviewed in both internal and external peer reviews before being submitted for publication to journals, where they are again peer reviewed before acceptance.”

It's not merely scientists that Kennedy defames, however. Since it would be pretty hard to overlook the effects of dosing the most potent brain killer around, that would implicate generations of pediatricians, too.

Does Kennedy think my colleagues and I were just too stupid to notice? Or are we evil? Did we decide to become specialists in caring for children because that’s where we could do the most harm, or were we let in on the heartbreaking secret about poisoning children somewhere along the way? After which we all just decided to go along with it and keep quiet? I am genuinely curious if any of the preposterous ramifications of what he is saying even occur to Kennedy.

Thankfully, he doesn’t seem to be getting very far, at least where politics is concerned. Neither Mikulski nor Sanders appear to want to spend any time talking with him about the issue. (Maybe he would have had better luck crossing party lines and working with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.) But he is doing harm to public health, even if he doesn’t sway policy.

As William Schaffner, MD, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and past president of Infectious Diseases Society of America, told The Daily Beast, “Immunization is one of the most important tools for protection against infectious diseases. Myths such as those linking vaccines to autism are a threat to public health to the extent that they lead parents to decide against vaccinating their children.” He cites the rising rate of measles as a ready example of the harm these decisions can cause.

Because thimerosal can still be found in some flu vaccines, Kennedy may yet dissuade people who would otherwise get it from protecting themselves. Pregnant women in particular may avoid it, fearing harm to their fetus, and thus expose themselves to greater harm from the illness. Of course, there’s a study showing that prenatal exposure to thimerosal doesn’t cause autism, but clearly Kennedy would say that all 14 authors (including scientists at Stanford, Harvard, UCLA, and the CDC) are liars.

The unmitigated gall Kennedy displays in defaming the hard work of dedicated researchers is bad enough. That he is able to do so in personal meetings with our nation’s leaders based on no qualification but his surname makes it all the worse. Thankfully, he appears to be a failure as a public policy advocate, which makes him nothing more than one more vaccine-denying celebrity making my job harder.