Because taking health insurance away from millions of Americans isn’t bad enough, President-elect Trump has reportedly asked an outspoken critic of vaccines — a man who supported the thoroughly debunked notion that vaccines are linked to autism — to lead a commission on vaccine safety.
That man is Robert Kennedy Jr., who in 2005 wrote a “expose” published in Salon and Rolling Stone arguing that thimerosal, a preservative in vaccines, is tied to autism. Salon retracted the article after critics “further eroded any faith we had in the story’s value.” Rolling Stone dumped the story too. More recently, Kennedy edited the book, “Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak.” Kennedy is lawyer — not a scientist, doctor, child health expert or public health practitioner — and yet, if news reports come to fruition, he will be in charge of reviewing the safety of one of the greatest life-saving tools of the 20th century. Need a number to back up that statement? Here’s just one of many: Between 2000 and 2014, scientists estimate that the measles vaccine prevented more than 17 million deaths worldwide.
Here’s what some news reports are saying about Kennedy’s possible role in the Trump administration.
At Stat, Sheila Kaplan writes:
The offer, which came in a Wednesday meeting between Trump and the scion of America’s most prominent Democratic family, is likely to concern scientists and public health experts who fear the incoming administration could give legitimacy to skeptics of childhood immunizations, despite a huge body of scientific research demonstrating that vaccines are safe.
“President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it,” Kennedy told reporters after the meeting. “His opinion doesn’t matter but the science does matter and we ought to be reading the science and we ought to be debating the science. And that everybody ought to be able to be assured that the vaccines that we have — he’s very pro-vaccine, as am I — but they’re as safe as they possibly can be.”
At BuzzFeed News, Azeen Ghorayshi writes:
“When Bobby Kennedy Jr. writes a book like that saying ‘let the science speak,’ I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told BuzzFeed News. “The science has already spoken on this issue. There are seventeen studies showing that the MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism. There are seven studies showing that thimerosal at the level contained in vaccines doesn’t cause autism. There are not two sides to this issue.”
At the Washington Post, Abby Phillip, Lena H. Sun and Lenny Bernstein report:
The announcement was met with alarm from health professionals who say that putting a proponent of a conspiracy theory in a position of authority on this issue is dangerous.
“That’s very frightening; it’s difficult to imagine anyone less qualified to serve on a commission for vaccine science,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, a nonprofit that works to control, treat and eliminate vaccine-preventable and neglected tropical diseases.
“The science is clear: Massive evidence showing no link between vaccines and autism, and as both a scientist who develops vaccines for poverty-related neglected diseases and the father of an adult daughter with autism, there’s not even any plausibility for a link,” Hotez continued. “Autism is a genetic condition.”
“Our nation’s public health will suffer if this nascent neo-antivaxxer movement is not stopped immediately,” he added.
Back to Kennedy’s debunked view on thimerosal and autism, CDC clearly states that there is no evidence of this connection. In fact, the measles, mumps and rubella vaccines do not and never did contain thimerosal, nor have the chickenpox, inactivated polio and pneumococcal conjugate vaccines. Flu shots are available in thimerosal-free versions. CDC also noted that the preservative was eliminated from all childhood immunizations in 2001, and even after elimination, autism rates continued to go up.
So, what exactly would Kennedy and this new vaccine safety commission do? No one knows just yet, though Kennedy has a history of advocating for measures that make it easier to opt out of childhood vaccination requirements and fighting against state proposals that eliminate nonmedical exemptions for vaccines. Kennedy and his supporters call this “medical freedom,” though they often forget to mention that such exemptions also give preventable, sometimes-fatal diseases the freedom to re-emerge in communities and attack some of our most vulnerable residents, like newborns, the elderly and people living with compromised immune systems.
When immunization rates go down, diseases spread and people — often the youngest among us — needlessly suffer. To get a sense of exactly how many people used to die from vaccine-preventable disease — as well as how many people worldwide still die because they just don’t have access to life-saving vaccines — read our 2016 coverage on how vaccine refusals fuel the spread of disease.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years.