I talked vaccines with Robert Kennedy Jr. a couple of years ago, when the Legislature was considering Senate Bill 277, which made vaccines mandatory for almost all school-age children. Kennedy was putting on rallies in Sacramento and showing his anti-vaccine movie; I’d been told by a mutual friend that he could explain the real scientific concerns.
Not really, as it turned out. Instead of bringing up previously unexamined concerns about the safety of vaccines, Kennedy homed in on one of the most ancient. He wanted to talk about what he contends is the link between autism and thimerosal, the preservative that used to be added to many routine childhood vaccinations.
Let’s ignore for a moment the mountains of high-quality studies that have discredited the autism-vaccine shibboleth and focus instead on the words “used to.” Thimerosal was removed or reduced to trace amounts in children’s vaccines some 15 years ago. It’s still present in multi-dose flu vaccines, but getting a single-dose shot is easy enough.
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So the real question is why Kennedy continues to harp about vaccine safety if his only concern is an ingredient that’s been close to eliminated from routine childhood immunizations and that’s easily avoided in flu shots. And when I asked him that, his response was that getting the California vaccine bill killed wasn’t his primary objective. In other words, a non-answer.
Last week, Kennedy announced, after a meeting with President-elect Donald Trump, that he had agreed to chair a commission on vaccine safety. It’s unclear what really happened; Trump team members said the president-elect was only looking into forming a commission and hadn’t offered the chair to anyone.
Trump already has an entire agency – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – that studies and studies and studies vaccine safety. Vaccines undergo regulatory safety regulations so tight, they make the approval of regular prescription drugs look like a waltz in the free market.
Yet we’ve learned how even the most despicable scientific fraud – I’m referring to the disgraced paper by Andrew Wakefield that gave birth to the autism-measles vaccine canard – sows seeds of long-lived doubt. Kennedy feeds that doubt with his conspiracy rhetoric. We can’t trust the CDC, the FDA and, by the way, the other nations that have conducted their own studies. This is the hallmark of the anti-science movement, readily seen among climate skeptics. When the evidence is that strong against you, just call it a conspiracy.
Kennedy says that his mission would be to look at the science, but how could he be trusted to do that when he thinks any science that doesn’t fit with his preconceived notions is a plot? This is how he voiced his fringe vaccine belief: “They get the shot, that night they have a fever of 103, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone. This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.”
He later apologized for that insulting and wildly inaccurate description of autism, but it proves the point: This man is not a scientist or anything remotely resembling a medical expert. He doesn’t belong anywhere near a scientific inquiry.
Want an example of a holocaust? In 1990, measles killed 872,000 people worldwide. A global vaccination effort reduced that to 158,000 people by the year 2011. A recent study found that the measles vaccination campaign had saved the lives of 20 million children from 2000 to 2015 – and even so, missed measles inoculations mean that 400 children a day continue to die from the disease.
The danger isn’t vaccines. Measles and many other diseases are highly contagious, potentially fatal, but preventable. The danger is from people who throw around scare words, paving the way for its comeback.
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.