Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s announcement yesterday that president-elect Donald J. Trump asked him to chair a government commission on “vaccine safety and scientific integrity” has prompted a deluge of responses on social media, on blogs, and in the media in general. Though he calls himself (and Trump) “very pro-vaccine,” Kennedy has been a dogged pursuer of the discredited connection between vaccination and autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. If Kennedy’s statement about his appointment is true — and a Trump spokesperson has not quite confirmed it — public health and medical workers are right to be concerned about the effect this commission may have on public perception of vaccines.
The Trump team, in fact, after Kennedy went public with his claims, stated that the potential position that Trump and Kennedy discussed was as head of a commission on autism. As Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks wrote in a statement, “The President-elect is exploring the possibility of forming a commission on autism, which affects so many families.”
Kennedy, though he is an attorney and environmental activist with no degrees in science or public health, has written widely to promote a link between the now little-used vaccine preservative thimerosal (also spelled thiomersal) and to call into question the scientific integrity of the entire U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2005, Kennedy wrote an article entitled “Deadly Immunity” for Salon and Rolling Stone that both publications subsequently had to significantly amend — and Salon removed it from its site. Both publications found it necessary to publish comments on the problems in the piece, with Salon writing “…continued revelations of the flaws and even fraud tainting the science behind the original connection [made by Andrew Wakefield and discussed as evidence by Kennedy in the piece] make taking down the story the right thing to do.” He published a book in 2014 entitled Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak: The Evidence Supporting the Immediate Removal of Mercury–a Known Neurotoxin–from Vaccines. In 2015 at an event in California, he claimed that the vaccination program is akin to the Holocaust: ““They get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone. This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.” For further background on Kennedy’s positions on vaccines, see Laura Helmuth’s piece on Slate.com, published in 2013.
Reaction to the potential appointment has been vigorous, with the American Academy of Pediatrics issuing a statement soon after the news, and commenters responding volubly on social media outlets such as Twitter. History of Vaccines advisor Thomas Fekete, MD, FCPP, Infectious Diseases section chief at Temple University Hospital, notes that Kennedy’s approach and background are unsuited for influencing public health policy on vaccines: “Any changes in vaccination policy need to arise from science and clinical evidence and not from fear or anecdote. Individual adults who disregard vaccine recommendations are taking a small chance that their children may be harmed. But as more parents disregard or modify vaccination schedules, they are taking a larger chance that outbreaks of infection can affect their community that also includes children who are too sick to receive vaccines. Any change in vaccine policy needs to look at public health implications since vaccination has a dual goal of protecting individuals as well as communities.”
Stanley Plotkin, MD, FCPP, History of Vaccines advisor and developer of many vaccines, provides the following perspective: “The idea that vaccines cause autism has been examined for years by scientists in general and by a committee of the National Academy of Medicine, even though the original idea was based on fraudulent data. None of the many studies done over the last decade has shown any link between vaccines and autism. Robert Kennedy Jr. has espoused a link between vaccines and autism and has argued that the preservative thiomersal damaged vaccinees, even though the original accusation was against MMR, which does not contain thiomersal. Moreover, multiple groups already exist tasked with surveillance of vaccine safety on a scientific basis. The addition of a group led by Kennedy, if it occurs, will bring in pseudoscience and dubious statements, and is deplorable.”
We’ll keep following the story. I expect that public reaction to Kennedy’s statement may lead the Trump team to reconsider the appointment. For my previous post on Trump’s vaccine positions, see this post from November.