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.
That wasted money will largely affect public health departments, whose budgets are already strained. A 2010 study in Pediatrics calculated the public sector expenses of containing a measles outbreak in which 11 children were infected at $124,517, an average of more than $10,000 per infection. That’s not to say that families won’t be affected as well: During that outbreak, 48 children too young to be vaccinated had to be quarantined at an average cost of $775 per family; medical costs for one infant who was infected were close to $15,000.
But those costs pale into comparison to the loss that will be felt by families who lose children to vaccine-preventable diseases, which typically strike when children are infected while still too young to be vaccinated.
Take pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough. There have been several dramatic spikes in pertussis infections in the past decade, and in 2012 there were 48,277 reported cases in the US—the most since 1955. More than 87 percent of all of the country’s pertussis deaths from 2000 to 2014 were in infants younger than 3 months, which meant they were too young to have gotten their first pertussis shot.
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.
Kennedy, the eldest son and namesake of the former attorney general and New York senator, described how he’d come to investigate the issue: “I was drawn into the controversy only reluctantly. As an attorney and environmentalist who has spent years working on issues of mercury toxicity, I frequently met mothers of autistic children who were absolutely convinced that their kids had been injured by vaccines. Privately, I was skeptical.” [Note: Shortly after “The Panic Virus” was published, Salon decided to pull the piece from its site.]
Then, Kennedy wrote, he began to look at the information these parents had collected. He pored over the transcript from the 2000 CDC-organized meeting outside Atlanta and spoke with members of SafeMinds and Generation Rescue, two groups notable for their virulent opposition to vaccines. He also studied the work of the “only two scientists” who had managed to gain access to government data on the safety of vaccines: Dr. Mark Geier, a frequent paid witness in lawsuits alleging harm done by vaccines, and his son, David. (The Geiers would go on to develop a “protocol” for treating autism that involved injecting children with the drug that is used to chemically castrate sex offenders at a cost of upwards of $70,000 per year.)
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.
Kennedy went on to quote SafeMinds’ Mark Blaxill, whom he identified as the vice president of “a nonprofit organization concerned about the role of mercury in medicine.” Blaxill accused the CDC of “incompetence and gross negligence” and claimed that the damage done by vaccines was “bigger than asbestos, bigger than tobacco, bigger than anything you’ve ever seen.”
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.
The CDC’s Robert Chen was one of the victims of Kennedy’s approach. His actual quote is as follows:
“Before we all leave, someone raised a very good process question that all of us as a group needs to address, and that is this information of all the copies we have received and are taking back home to your institutions, to what extent should people feel free to make copies to distribute to others in their organization? We have been privileged so far that given the sensitivity of information, we have been able to manage to keep it out of, let’s say, less responsible hands, yet the nature of kind of proliferation, and Xerox machines being what they are, the risk of that changes. So I guess as a group perhaps, and Roger [Bernier, the associate director of science at the National Immunization Program], you may have thought about that?”
In Kennedy’s hands, it became this:
“Dr. Bob Chen, head of vaccine safety for the CDC, expressed relief that ‘given the sensitivity of the information, we have been able to keep it out of the hands of, let’s say, less responsible hands.’”
Even more egregious was Kennedy’s slicing and dicing of a lengthy statement by the World Health Organization’s John Clements. In this instance, Kennedy transposed sentences and left out words. Here is what actually appeared in the transcript, with italics added to indicate the sentences Kennedy used in his story:
“And I really want to risk offending everyone in the room by saying that perhaps this study should not have been done at all, because the outcome of it could have, to some extent, been predicted and we have all reached this point now where we are left hanging . . . There is now the point at which the research results have to be handled, and even if this committee decides that there is no association and that information gets out, the work has been done and through Freedom of Information that will be taken by others and will be used in other ways beyond the control of this group. And I am very concerned about that as I suspect it is already too late to do anything regardless of any professional body and what they say. . . . My message would be that any other study—and I like the study that has just been described here very much, I think it makes a lot of sense—but it has to be thought through. What are the potential outcomes and how will you handle it? How will it be presented to a public and a media that is hungry for selecting the information they want to use for whatever means they have in store for them?”
In “Deadly Immunity,” that was changed to read:
“Dr. John Clements, vaccines advisor at the World Health Organization, declared flatly that the study ‘should not have been done at all’ and warned that the results ‘will be taken by others and will be used in ways beyond the control of this group. The research results have to be handled.’”
To top it all off, Kennedy married together two separate comments made by the developmental biologist and pediatrician Robert Brent. In the first one, Brent said:
“Finally, the thing that concerns me the most, those who know me, I have been a pin stick in the litigation community because of the nonsense of our litigious society. This will be a resource to our very busy plaintiff attorneys in this country when this information becomes available. They don’t want valid data. At least that is my biased opinion. They want business and this could potentially be a lot of business.”
Thirty-eight pages later, Brent addressed the topic of “junk scientists”:
“If an allegation was made that a child’s neurobehavioral findings were caused by thimerosal containing vaccines, you could readily find a junk scientist who would support the claim with ‘a reasonable degree of certainty.’ … So we are in a bad position from the standpoint of defending any lawsuits if they were initiated and I am concerned.”
In a distortion that the editor of a high school newspaper would have balked at, Kennedy took these two statements, switched their order, and ran them together:
“We are in a bad position from the standpoint of defending any lawsuits,” said Dr. Robert Brent, a pediatrician at the Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Delaware. “This will be a resource to our very busy plaintiff attorneys in this country.”
In the overall scheme of the piece, that type of quote massaging was considered so insignificant that it didn’t warrant inclusion in the more than five hundred words’ worth of “notes,” “clarifications,” and “corrections” that were eventually appended to the piece. (The misuse of Chen’s quote wasn’t acknowledged either.) Among the issues that were addressed were incorrect attributions, inaccuracies about which vaccines contained thimerosal at different points in time, a misrepresentation of the number of shots children had received in the 1980s, and a false claim about a scientist having a patent on the measles vaccine.
None of this put a dent in Kennedy’s conviction that his allegations were valid, and in the weeks and months to come, he kept on repeating many of the errors Rolling Stone and Salon had already publicly acknowledged were wrong.
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.”