News that President Trump may tap Robert Kennedy Jr. to head a commission on vaccine safety has not been well-received by the media.
Kennedy is a leading environmentalist. He’s also the son of the former attorney general and senator, Robert Kennedy; and nephew of former President John F. Kennedy.
Having followed his work for years, I had a difficult time believing he could be on point on so many issues, and completely off-base about vaccines, as media reports suggest.
So I looked into it. I read a 2014 book Kennedy edited on thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in some vaccines. I also read his critics.
And here’s my non-medical-expert opinion: the media should stop the name-calling.
For starters, it’s a stretch to accuse Kennedy of being anti-vaccine.
“I am pro-vaccine,” Kennedy wrote in Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak:
I had all six of my children vaccinated. I believe that vaccines have saved the lives of hundreds of millions of humans over the past century and that broad vaccine coverage is critical to public health. But I want our vaccines to be as safe as possible.
This begs the question: What’s the definition of this term, “anti-vaccine”? If you question any aspect of any vaccine should you be stuck with this label?
“If patients have concerns, doubts, or suspicions — for example, about the safety of vaccines, this does not mean they are ‘anti-vaccine,’” writes Peter Doshi, associate editor of the British Medical Journal.
The label (or its derogatory derivative “anti-vaxxer”) is a form of attack. It stigmatizes the mere act of even asking an open question about what is known and unknown about the safety of vaccines.
Multi-dose vaccines, which are less costly to produce and store than single-dose vaccines, require a preservative to keep them sterile. The preservative protects the batch from being contaminated when a syringe is inserted to remove each dose.
For years, thimerosal has been one of the most common vaccine preservatives, although alternatives are increasing (at least in the U.S. – in the developing world vaccines still regularly contain thimerosal).
In the heavily-footnoted Thimerosal, Kennedy calls the preservative “a dangerous neurotoxin” due to its mercury content.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), among other health bodies, disagrees. Still the FDA“continues to work with, vaccine manufacturers to reduce or eliminate thimerosal from vaccines.”
Thimerosal has already been removed from U.S. childhood vaccines, except in trace amounts. The removal followed a joint 1999 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Public Health Service, which includes, among other federal agencies, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control. The joint statement recommended thimerosal’s removal, but stated its risk, while unknown, was likely slim-to-none.
Subsequently, numerous public health bodies, including the FDA and CDC, have reaffirmedthimerosal’s safety.
But Kennedy says statements from health agencies are not the same as scientific studies. Along with actor Robert De Niro, Kennedy is offering $100,000 to anyone “who can point to a peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrating that thimerosal is safe in the amounts contained in vaccines currently being administered to American children and pregnant women.”
While no longer in childhood vaccines, thimerosal is still found in some flu vaccines. This flu season, upwards of 35 million doses of the flu vaccine contained thimerosal.
The CDC recommends an annual flu shot for anyone over the age of six months, including pregnant women.
“In effect,” wrote the authors of Thimerosal, “the CDC has switched the main source of American children’s Thimerosal exposure from early childhood vaccines to Thimerosal-preserved flu shots, beginning in utero.”
Public health agencies don’t view this as a threat.
That doesn’t make him anti-vaccine.
It’s time for the media to stop the name-calling.
* It’s not a sure thing Kennedy will chair the vaccine commission, if it’s even created. Following Kennedy’s recent, sharp criticism of Trump’s anti-environmental measures, it’s hard to imagine the thin-skinned president appointing him to anything.