Healio Special Report: Health Care and Politics
Healio Special Report: Health Care and Politics
January 11, 2017
6 min read

Trump’s meeting with ‘vaccine cynic’ Robert F. Kennedy Jr. raises concerns

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a proponent of scientifically disproven claims about the safety of vaccines, said he was asked by President-elect Donald J. Trump to chair a commission about vaccine safety, raising concerns among infectious disease experts that the incoming administration was taking a dangerous anti-science position on immunization.

“I think Donald Trump is a lucky man. He’s in a position where he can avail himself of the best expertise in the country, and he should do that. Bobby Kennedy Jr. is not that person,” Paul A. Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center and professor of pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told Infectious Disease News.

Robert Kennedy Jr.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Kennedy, an environmental lawyer, met with Trump in New York on Tuesday and said afterward that the Republican President-elect had asked him to “chair a commission on vaccine safety … and scientific integrity to make sure that we have scientific integrity in the vaccine process for efficacy and safety of vaccines.”

“President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it,” Kennedy told reporters. “He says 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 everybody ought to be assured that the vaccines that we have — he’s very pro-vaccine, as am I — are as safe as they possibly can be.”

The AMA, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and American Academy of Pediatrics were among the organizations that expressed concern over the comments.

However, in a statement to reporters, the Trump transition team denied such a request had been made.

“The President-elect is exploring the possibility of forming a committee on autism, which affects so many families; however, no decisions have been made at this time,” the statement read. “The President-elect looks forward to continuing the discussion about all aspects of autism with many groups and individuals.”

False allegations

Kennedy’s widely debunked claims about vaccine safety focus on the use of the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal in certain vaccines and the link to neurological disorders in children, including autism.

He edited a book on the subject, “Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak: The Evidence Supporting the Immediate Removal of Mercury — a Known Neurotoxin — from Vaccines,” and wrote a magazine story in 2005 alleging that the government conspired to hide the link. The magazine story was co-published by Rolling Stone and Salon, but was later amended by both outlets with numerous corrections. Years after it was published, Salon removed the article from its website with an apology.

“His past statements have demonstrated a lack of understanding of mainstream science,” Dean A. Blumberg, MD, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, told Infectious Disease News. “In addition, I think it’s unfortunate that he has used language that I consider quite inflammatory. I don’t think it’s constructive to have somebody with those beliefs involved in looking at anything that has scientific basis to it.”

Kennedy has widely been called a “vaccine skeptic,” but Offit thinks that is a misnomer.

Paul Offit
Paul A. Offit

“I wouldn’t call him a vaccine skeptic. I’d call him a vaccine cynic,” Offit said. “RFK Jr.’s question about whether thimerosal is dangerous has been asked and answered. There are seven studies that have looked at this question and all have found the same thing, which is thimerosal at the level contained in vaccines is not harmful. So, his skepticism about thimerosal is reasonable, but if you have evidence then showing that it’s not a problem, why don’t you believe it?

“In his case, he believes there is a conspiracy to hide the truth, a conspiracy that involves hundreds of researchers on at least two different continents. Researchers in the United States, Denmark, England are all, apparently, somehow deeply in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry. All have been willing to lie, to line their own pockets and hurt children — for which he has no evidence. He’s not a skeptic; he’s a cynic.”

Like Kennedy, Trump has claimed to be “pro-vaccine,” despite aligning himself with anti-vaccine views, including the claim that immunizations can cause autism. During the Republican debates, Trump said vaccines should be delivered in smaller doses over a longer period to prevent the condition — a concern with no scientific basis, Blumberg said.

“If you look at the content of the vaccines and the vaccine schedule, children today are receiving the equivalent or less than the total amount of antigens in the vaccine schedule compared to 100 years ago,” Blumberg said. “It’s just the appearance of the injections that people might misunderstand.

“There is no scientific reason to be concerned about the schedule. The human immune system — even the infant immune system, the immature system — has the extraordinary ability to respond to thousands of antigens. And we know that when children are born, they’re exposed to thousands of antigens at a time. So, there’s no scientific basis for that concern, but it’s been around for a while.”

In previous interviews, experts have told Infectious Disease News they are anxious and uncertain about how Trump would approach certain health-related topics. Reacting to the possible formation of a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity, Offit and Blumberg pointed out the number of committees on scientific integrity, vaccine safety and autism that already exist.

“He’s trying to create something that already exists and to have it be headed by somebody who knows little to nothing about the subject. How can that be good?” Offit said.

Blumberg said forming such a committee chaired by Kennedy would lend credence to the claim that vaccines cause autism and undermine the public’s confidence in immunizations.

“In the U.S., we’ve got the safest, most effective vaccines in the world, and any action that undermines confidence in that can impact public health,” he said. “This has real potential consequences for having vaccine-preventable diseases return and even deaths occurring due to vaccine-preventable diseases. I think it’s quite dangerous.”

Anti-vaccine policies would do harm

WHO announced last year that measles had been eradicated in the Americas following a decades-long effort to immunize people with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Likewise, the Americas also was the first WHO region to eradicate smallpox, polio, rubella and congenital rubella. Meanwhile, the world is nearing the final stages of polio eradication, with only several dozen cases being reported in three countries last year.

Dean Blumberg
Dean A. Blumberg

The importance of immunizing people against these diseases may be lost on younger segments of the population, Blumberg said.

“A few years ago, the CDC reported on a cluster of cases of invasive Haemophilus influenzae type B infections in Minnesota, and it turned out that among those cases, several … children were not vaccinated due to parental choice,” he said. “The parents didn’t understand how serious a disease invasive Haemophilus influenzae type B can be because the vaccine is so effective that we hardly ever see any cases. I think the same is true with measles.”

In the era of “fake news,” where conspiracy theories are routinely confused with reality, there is a concern that debunked claims like the one linking autism to vaccines will be given the same credibility, Blumberg said.

“Anything that elevates the profile of fringe beliefs can make it more confusing for us in the mainstream scientific community to convince parents — and even other health care providers — what the mainstream science is saying about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines,” Blumberg said.

Experts have complained that it is difficult to know how Trump feels about certain health-related topics because of his tendency to make contradictory statements. Pulling back from an apparent offer to have Kennedy lead a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity would seem to fit that mold.

“I cannot begin to predict Donald Trump. He’s all over the place,” Offit said. “This is only going to matter when you see the degree to which it affects policy. If it affects policy that it in any way lessens children’s capacity to get vaccines or lessens the public’s perception of vaccine safety, then the answer is that it has done harm.” – by Gerard Gallagher

Disclosures: Blumberg reports being on speakers bureau for Merck and Sanofi Pasteur, earning honorariums that are given to the university. Offit reports no relevant financial disclosures.