Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: anti-vaxer

August 8, 2014 • 10:54 am

What a comedown! Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (born 1954), son of the late RFK, senator and attorney general, has become an anti-vaxer, and a particularly invidious one.  I haven’t really followed his attacks on vax, but “Orac” (the web name of surgeon David Gorski, who’s given me permission to identify him) has, and Gorski has repeatedly attacked the long-time antivaccination stance of Kennedy.  RFK Jr. is not really an anti-vaxer in the sense of opposing vaccinations per se, but opposes vaccinations that contain thimerosal, a mercury-containing compound once used to preserve vaccines. That preservative, he claims, causes autism.

That’s right, I said thimerosal was “once used.” It hasn’t been used in over a decade, except for certain flu vaccines that are used in remote parts of the world where they can’t be preserved by refrigeration. Nevertheless, Kennedy continues to harp on the dangers of thimerosal, including the claim that it causes autism. This claim has been debunked in several studies, and, as far as I know, there are no other health risks of thimerosal in the quantities used in vaccines. And remember, it’s only used in one type of vaccine, and only in remote parts of the world.

But Kennedy harps on, and has a new, longish piece at Alternet reiterating these debunked claims: “An invitation to open debate on Thimerosal.” This is all by way of pushing his new book, one bearing the unwieldy title of Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak: The Evidence Supporting the Immediate Removal of Mercury—a known neurotoxin—From Vaccines.  It came out August 4, but is already garnering positive reviews on Amazon from the credulous.

To get the lowdown on Kennedy’s claims, I wrote to Gorski, long respected for his skepticism about bizarre medical claims, skepticism he displays on two websites.  I asked him about Kennedy, his book, and his claims, and Gorski replied:

“Heh. Just search Science-Based Medicine and Respectful Insolence for ‘thimerosal’and ‘mercury,’ and you’ll find more posts than you know what to do with. . . I could produce dozens more, and not just by me.”

He sent me some examples of columns he’d written debunking the claims that thimerosal is commonly used, that it’s toxic, and that it causes autism. If you want to read the real science, see Gorski’s columns here, here, here, and here. If you can read only one, read the last one, written on June 17 and dealing with RFK Jr.’s book and its claims.

Rather than excerpt and digest them all, I’ll refer you to a new article in Time Magazine, “RFK Jr. joins the anti-vaccine fringe”, that also debunks Kennedy’s thesis. Some excerpts:

But let’s start with a single fact that ought to be, as the lawyers like to say, dispositive: the thimerosal ain’t there. With the exception of the flu vaccine, it was removed from or reduced to trace levels in all vaccines given to children under 6-years-old 13 years ago. You face a greater mercury risk eating seafood and fish—and even that danger is low enough that the EPA recently recommended that pregnant and nursing women increase their intake of certain kinds of fish because the nutritional benefits outweigh the theoretical dangers.

Kennedy is wrong on basic epidemiology too. Autism diagnoses have indeed risen steadily in the U.S. in recent years, but that has been happening in the same period in which thimerosal levels in vaccines plunged. When your cause goes away and your reputed effect increases, well, you really do need to review your class notes on what cause and effect mean in the first place.

Most fundamentally, Kennedy does not get chemistry. Thimerosal is an ethylmercury product. Mercury in general may be a neurotoxin, but it’s in its methylmercury form that it does its damage—and only in particular concentrations. The quantity of ethylmercury that was once in vaccines was so small that it was actually within acceptable limits for the more toxic, methyl form—but it wasn’t even in that methyl form to begin with.

It’s amusing to see Kennedy, in his piece, waffle on the methy/ethylmercury distinction.  Time continues:

. . .As long ago as 2005, he published an anti-vax article in Rolling Stone claiming to reveal how “government health agencies colluded with Big Pharma to hide the risks of thimerosal from the public.” And Keith Kloor, the author of a new Washington Post Magazine profile of Kennedy, reports that last year, in response to a story he wrote on the Discover magazine website labeling this kind of thinking as the nonsense that it is, Kennedy called him up and said bluntly, “I’m trying to figure out whether you are a shill for Big Pharma.”

. . . The worst—and the least explicable—thing about Kennedy and his new cause is the company he keeps. His book is being put out by Skyhorse Publishing—an outfit that also includes the disgraced Andrew Wakefield in its stable of authors. Wakefield is the U.K. investigator whose fraudulent 1998 paper purporting to link autism to the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine set off the entire anti-vaccine wildfire. In 2010, The Lancet formally withdrew the 1998 paper and Wakefield has since been banned from practicing medicine in the U.K. And as for the company Wakefield himself keeps? The foreword to his book was written by Jenny McCarthy.

After I read this, I wrote back to Gorski asking if it was indeed true that thimerosal was still used in flu vaccines, and his response was brief:

Yes, but they are rarely used in children any more, at least not in developed countries. Thimerosal, however, is very important for vaccine preservation in Third World countries, where the refrigeration chain is nowhere near as reliable as it is here.

He then referred me to three other pieces he’s written on the topic, and on Kennedy; they’re here, here, and here. After reading those, it’s clear that a). there are no dangers to using thimerosal in the quantities once employed, and b. even if there were very small dangers, they would be greatly outweighed by the benefit of vaccinating people against influenza.

I haven’t read all of Gorski’s pieces on this issue, but I’ve read enough to know that RFK Jr. is fear-mongering, and in so doing damaging public health. Although he doesn’t oppose vaccination, he still makes claims that will lead people to oppose vaccination, and for no good reason. The fact that he’s a Kennedy will also add unwarranted weight to his claims.  It’s sad to see someone who could use his name to do good act in exactly the opposite way.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., pseudoscientific fear monger


44 thoughts on “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: anti-vaxer

      1. Add me to the list. It took me a very long time to figure out that the way to describe my political views is somewhere in the leftist libertarian camp. For years, I’d get branded a liberal be conservatives and a conservative by liberals, depending on the issue. This even happened in my more religious days. Imagine how truly insufferable I must be to the two party loyalists now…

        1. You can take a test at Political Compass that maps you on a quadrant by how left/right you are and how libertarian/authoritarian you are. I’m in the bottom left quadrant….around where Ghandi sits. It is no wonder I can’t stand working for companies that tell me what to do all the time. I need to do things my own way.

          1. I’m taken that before, just took it again, I think it always ends up slightly different depending on my current mood and whether I’d qualify my agreement as strong or not on some of the things. This time I was at -6 economically and -6.3 socially. Last time I did it, I was around -4.5, -5. I guess I’m grumpier today and less willing to find middle ground as I had a few scotches last night and my coffee hasn’t yet kicked in. 🙂

            On another note, my company provides ongoing management training and I recently took a Behavioral Style test, which also maps you into quadrants. I ended up strong on the expressive side (more people oriented than task oriented, more direct communicator as opposed to indirect). Anyhow, like you, one quality common to this group is a dislike for too much oversight in my work, preferring a big picture goal with freedom to implement it any way I see fit. Luckily, software engineering is a perfect field for this.

            1. I took it again too & I ended up -5.5 economically & -6.4 socially. I think I’ve become even more socially libertarian from reading things on this site about the death penalty and such. I enjoyed where the world leaders sat as Francois Hollande is pretty left & pretty authoritarian for a political leader. I knew I liked something about him!

    1. No, I think you misspoke (typed). People like RFKjr are liberal/REgressives, and he’s a good reminder that ignorance knows no political boundaries and that even supposedly well-educated people can be dumber than d*gcrap.

  1. Vaccination is arguably the greatest triumph in all of science-based medicine. Not doubt some of the people reading this posting are alive because of it. Like all preventive strategies, however, it is a victim of its own success. People with more time than sense now live with little societal memory of the pandemics that used to cut huge swathes out of the population. We need them to get another hobby.

    1. victim of its own success – very true

      Each technology that slips invisibly away from people’s historical understanding of the grave consequences of not having that technology is what undermines that technology’s success.

      Vaccinations are like potable water. Hopefully we will never again go into a genocidal rage because we think the ‘other’ guy poisoned our water.

    2. Agreed. It saddens me greatly to think that the only thing that might change their minds are the deaths of innocent children. The recent rise in cases of pertussis and measles in the United States are a grim reminder of what happens when people are swayed by fear mongering with no basis in science.

      1. But innocent children have died and are dying because they’re not vaccinated and his mind hasn’t changed. It’s very strange for a person to be so egotistical yet have a lack of understanding of basic science and are either unable or unwilling to learn. Strange but certainly not uncommon.

  2. When I read about something related to alternative medicines or health stuff and the author seriously uses “Big Pharma” is it ok to just stop reading and move on?

    On the Amazon link you can have a look inside the book and read the chapter titles. All of the chapters are about how dangerous Thimerosal is.

  3. I really don’t know how people can be so wilfully ignorant and I’m not just referring to Kennedy but those that are still harping on about autism, etc. It’s as if they are just waiting to be outraged about something.

    1. Diana I sometimes wonder if religion, ant-vaxer, etc. aren’t just variant manifestations of an underlying anti-intelectual bias. After all, all these things depend upon a revealed truth that other people don’t want you to know.

  4. This is too bad, RFK Jr has pretty progressive views on a lot of other issues, why not focus on these things, instead of his personal idiosyncratic nonsense based on his personal ignorance. This just distracts from his credibility as well as the Kennedy legacy (yes I think JFK and RFK, warts and all, were relatively speaking – great political leaders, far better than almost all who have followed including Clinton and Obama).

  5. What’s saddest about this moronic phenomenon is that the public is largely obtuse to what scientists have to say about vaccinations, but they listen closely when an ill-informed, B-movie actress goes on the View and says her son got autism from vaccinations. It’s really quite pathetic.

  6. RFK Jr. was NEVER a voice of reason on any day, month or subject. He bases all his views on unbridled emotion.

  7. We’re currently commemorating the start of WWI, and the millions of senseless deaths that followed.

    People forget that the war was followed by a flu pandemic that killed even more.

    Science has brought us to a place where we’ve all but forgotten what it’s like to live with the constant threat of death via infectious disease.

    Imo, anti-vaxers suffer from the same cognitive dissonance as the religious, and you can see many similarities in the way they express themselves and interact with those who don’t accept their beliefs. Because they are just beliefs – they have no proof.

  8. We often hear about the “miracles of modern medicine.” Well – medicine is not that miraculous. It is still pretty crude – and often ineffective. The vast majority of gains in health and lifespan are the result of sanitation (i.e. bringing in clean water and getting rid of dirty water) and vaccines. I think the anti-vax movement should be expanded to include a campaign against sanitation – maybe public health in general.

    Do you have to be over 50 to have any memory of the terror that polio caused throughout society? Kids in grade school who survived polio but had to wear leg braces. Iron lungs. Bring back the good ole days!!!!

  9. I miss thimerosol! Merthiolate [and before it, mercurochrome, another mercury-based antiseptic] kept me out of the emergency room, or worse, hundreds of times in my youth. Always had scrapes on scrapes, scabs on scabs, nicely managed with “monkey blood”.

    Seems some kids must have drunk the stuff, since both materials quietly went off the market. I’m sure if I were to shop estate-sale bathrooms, I could start reliving my erratic youth…

    1. I almost kicked Bobby Jr.’s daddy in the butt when we were skiing in Sun Valley in the late 60s. I thought the guy bending over to tie his ski boots ( the old- fashioned kind) was MY Uncle Bobby. Fortunately I got distracted and RFK stood up before I could kick him ( gently)and then most likely get hauled away by the Secret Service. Never been a big fan of the Kennedys, though I think Teddy accomplished some good things in the Senate in later years.

  10. keith kloor was covering this piece by kennedy on his blog, and noted that huffington post rejected it after its medical board reviewed it (one of the doctors was heavily involved with his book, even), but they then published an anti-science post on GMO technology. kloor also did a pretty big profile piece on him in the washington post that’s well worth reading. needless to say, kennedy’s lost the script.

  11. Soon there will be a vaccine engineered for Ebola virus available — which of the anti-vaccers will remain true to the cause if Fox News decides to spread panic?

  12. My wife been doing behavior analysis mainly with autistic clients for over a decade. She occasionally runs into antivaxers and repeatedly dispel the bad information that continues to circulate. I wish Kennedy, McCarthy and especially Wakefield and his ilk could be held accountable for spreading this garbage.

    If our freedom of speech ends before our right to yell “fire!” in a crowded theater, how do these people continue to have the right to spout worthless opinions that do far more damage than a minor panic in a public place could ever create? There should be required disclaimers every time they open their mouths.

  13. One of the greatest legacies of science has been the eradication of smallpox worldwide.

    The next potential eradication program coming to completion is polio. Currently, there are only 3 countries in the world which remain polio-endemic, down from more than 125 in 1988. Can you guess what those countries are and what they have in common? I will list them at the end of this comment.

    Also, interestingly, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed into law the Vaccination Assistance Act. The central thrust of this legislation was to allow the CDC to support mass immunization campaigns and to initiate maintenance programs in the US.

    The 3 countries are Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, and the thing they have in common is muslim extremism.

  14. I had a misunderstanding today with one of my German hosts that a certain type of light bun was named for JFK. It wasn’t, but now I’m on the look out for a genuine “Berliner” to pin the label onto.

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