RFK Jr. Is Our Brother and Uncle. He’s Tragically Wrong About Vaccines.
We love Robert F. Kennedy Jr., but he is part of a misinformation campaign that’s having heartbreaking—and deadly—consequences.
By KATHLEEN KENNEDY TOWNSEND, JOSEPH P. KENNEDY II and MAEVE KENNEDY MCKEAN
May 08, 2019
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and the former chair of the Global Virus Network.
Joseph P. Kennedy II, a former member of Congress from Massachusetts, is the chairman and president of Citizens Energy Corporation.
Maeve Kennedy McKean is the executive director of Georgetown University’s Global Health Initiatives.
Americans have every right to be alarmed about the outbreak of measles in pockets of our country with unusually high rates of unvaccinated citizens, especially children. Right now, officials in 22 states are grappling with a resurgence of the disease, which was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000. With over 700 cases already reported and indications that more outbreaks will occur, 2019 will likely see the most recorded cases of measles in decades. And it’s not just measles. In Maine, health officials in March reported 41 new cases of whooping cough, another disease once thought to be a relic of the past—more than twice as many cases as this time last year.
This problem isn’t only an American one. The World Health Organization reports a 300 percent increase in the numbers of measles cases around the world this year compared with the first three months of 2018. More than 110,000 people are now dying from measles every year. The WHO, the health arm of the United Nations, has listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019. Most cases of preventable diseases occur among unvaccinated children, because parents have chosen not to vaccinate, have delayed vaccination, have difficulty accessing vaccines, or the children were too young to receive the vaccines.
These tragic numbers are caused by the growing fear and mistrust of vaccines—amplified by internet doomsayers. Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—Joe and Kathleen’s brother and Maeve’s uncle—is part of this campaign to attack the institutions committed to reducing the tragedy of preventable infectious diseases. He has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines.
We love Bobby. He is one of the great champions of the environment. His work to clean up the Hudson River and his tireless advocacy against multinational organizations who have polluted our waterways and endangered families has positively affected the lives of countless Americans. We stand behind him in his ongoing fight to protect our environment. However, on vaccines he is wrong.
And his and others’ work against vaccines is having heartbreaking consequences. The challenge for public health officials right now is that many people are more afraid of the vaccines than the diseases, because they’ve been lucky enough to have never seen the diseases and their devastating impact. But that’s not luck; it’s the result of concerted vaccination efforts over many years. We don’t need measles outbreaks to remind us of the value of vaccination.
And we are proud of the history of our family as advocates of public health and promoters of immunization campaigns to bring life-saving vaccines to the poorest and most remote corners of America and the world, where children are the least likely to receive their full course of vaccinations. On this issue, Bobby is an outlier in the Kennedy family. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy urged the 80 million Americans, including almost 5 million children, who had not been vaccinated for polio to receive the Salk vaccine, which he called “this miraculous drug.” In the same year, he signed an executive order creating the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has spent billions of dollars over the past decades in support of vaccine campaigns in developing countries.
President Kennedy signed the Vaccination Assistance Act in 1962 to,in the words of a CDC report, “achieve as quickly as possible the protection of the population, especially of all preschool children … through intensive immunization activity.” In a message to Congress that year, Kennedy said: “There is no longer any reason why American children should suffer from polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, or tetanus …I am asking the American people to join in a nationwide vaccination program to stamp out these four diseases.”
While serving as attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy promoted community empowerment models to address urgent social needs like better health care, leading to the development of community health centers, which our uncle Ted Kennedy championed throughout his long career in the Senate. Community health centers have been on the front lines of vaccination campaigns for more than 50 years in rural America, in inner-city neighborhoods and on Native American reservations to immunize our most vulnerable populations.
Senator Kennedy led numerous campaigns for reauthorization of the Vaccination Assistance Act, took up the fight for the Child Immunization Initiative of 1993, and authored many other measures to increase the availability of vaccines for uninsured adults through community health centers.
Those who delay or refuse vaccinations, or encourage others to do so, put themselves and others, especially children, at risk. It is in all our interests to make sure that immunizations reach every child on the globe through safe, effective and affordable vaccines. Everyone must communicate the benefits and safety of vaccines, and advocate for the respect and confidence of the institutions which make them possible. To do otherwise risks even further erosion of one of public health’s greatest achievements.
How Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Distorted Vaccine Science
His anti-vaccine credentials date back to 2005
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said Tuesday that he will head up a panel on vaccine safety for Donald Trump.
The president-elect’s transition team spokeswoman later walked that back, saying that he is “exploring the possibility” of forming a panel on autism, but “no decisions have been made.”
Let’s hope Trump drops any idea of a vaccine panel headed by Kennedy. For more than a decade, Kennedy has promoted anti-vaccine propaganda completely unconnected to reality. If Kennedy’s panel leads to even a small decline in vaccine rates across the country, it will result in the waste of untold amounts of money and, in all likelihood, the preventable deaths of infants too young to be vaccinated.
Kennedy made his name in the anti-vaccine movement in 2005, when he published a story alleging a massive conspiracy regarding thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that had been removed from all childhood vaccines except for some variations of the flu vaccine in 2001. In his piece, Kennedy completely ignored an Institute of Medicine immunization safety review on thimerosal published the previous year; he’s also ignored the nine studies funded or conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that have taken place since 2003.
I first wrote about Kennedy and his foray into the anti-vaccine movement in “The Panic Virus,” my book about the persistence of the myth that vaccines can cause autism. Below is a lightly edited version of my chapter on Kennedy, titled “A Conspiracy of Dunces.”
While Kennedy has been brazen in publicizing outright lies, he appears to be less loquacious when faced with skeptical reporters. I attempted to contact Kennedy more than 20 times over an 18-month period. At various points, I was told that he was considering my interview request, that he was on vacation, that he was dealing with a family crisis, that he wasn’t feeling well, that he was behind in his emails, and that he was on the verge of calling me back. (He never did.)
In the summer of 2005, Rolling Stone and Salon simultaneously published “Deadly Immunity,” a 4,700-word story on mercury in vaccines written by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
It wasn’t long before Kennedy became convinced that he’d stumbled upon “a chilling case study of institutional arrogance, power and greed.” If, as he believed to be the case, “our public-health authorities knowingly allowed the pharmaceutical industry to poison an entire generation of American children, their actions arguably constitute one of the biggest scandals in the annals of American medicine,” he wrote.
In the article’s final paragraph, Kennedy warned his readers of the scandal’s likely effects on the future: “It’s hard to calculate the damage to our country—and to the international efforts to eradicate epidemic diseases—if Third World nations come to believe that America’s most heralded foreign-aid initiative is poisoning their children. It’s not difficult to predict how this scenario will be interpreted by American’s enemies abroad.” In fact, he wrote, he was certain that the failure of a generation of “scientists and researchers … to come clean on thimerosal will come back horribly to haunt our country and the world’s poorest populations.”
In order for what Kennedy was claiming to be true, scientists and officials in governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations, and publicly held companies around the world would need to be part of a coordinated multi-decade scheme to prop up “the vaccine industry’s bottom line” by masking the dangers of thimerosal.
In Kennedy’s telling, the plotting had been going on since the Great Depression, but it had begun in renewed earnest five years earlier “at the isolated Simpsonwood conference center,” a location that Kennedy said was chosen because it was “nestled in wooded farmland next to the Chattahoochee River, to ensure complete secrecy.” (In reality, the location was chosen because a series of previously scheduled conferences had booked up all of the hotel rooms within 50 miles of Atlanta.)
Kennedy relied on the 286-page transcript of the Simpsonwood meeting to corroborate his allegations—and wherever the transcript diverged from the story he wanted to tell, he simply cut and pasted until things came out right. Again and again, he used participants’ warnings about the reckless manipulation of scientific data by people with ulterior motives to do the very thing they were afraid would happen.
Just four days after a correction confirmed that his story had misstated the levels of ethylmercury infants had received—it was actually “40 percent, not 187 times, greater than the EPA’s limit for daily exposure to methyl mercury”—Kennedy told MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, “We are injecting our children with 400 times the amount of mercury that FDA or EPA considers safe.” Kennedy also said on-air that children were being given 24 vaccines and that each one of them had “this thimerosal, this mercury in them.”
Those statements were not even remotely true: In 2005, the CDC recommended that children under 12 years old receive a total of eight vaccines that protected against a dozen different diseases. Only three of those vaccines had ever used thimerosal as a preservative, and all had been thimerosal-free since 2001.
That Scarborough didn’t ask Kennedy to produce evidence supporting his accusations is not surprising: Scarborough had long had a hunch that vaccines were to blame for his teenage son’s “slight form of autism called Asperger’s.” Kennedy’s research, it seemed, had confirmed his suspicions once and for all. “There’s no doubt in my mind,” Scarborough said, “and maybe it’s two years from now, maybe it’s five years from now, maybe it’s ten years from now—we are going to find out thimerosal causes, in my opinion, autism.”