My mother-in-law, who lives in New Jersey, recently mailed me a newspaper clipping. It was about a famous person who came to her state to publicly oppose a bill that would make it harder for parents to exempt their children from school-mandated vaccinations. This same famous person had just visited two other states to lobby against similar legislation proposed in the wake of the Disneyland/Measles outbreak. Local media and wire services have covered the spectacles in Oregon, California, and New Jersey.
Yes, Robert Kennedy Jr. has made headlines again for, as the New Jersey Star Ledger put it in a hard-hitting editorial, “his crazy-talk about a vast government conspiracy to hide the truth that a vaccine ingredient called thimerosal causes childhood autism.” The Star-ledger goes on to correctly note:
He is wrong. Every major scientific and medical organization in the country agrees that he is wrong. Here’s all you need to know about thimerosal: There is no link between it and any brain disorders, including autism. To assuage fears, the government removed it from pediatric vaccines nearly 15 years ago, with the exception of a specific flu vaccine, and childhood autism rates have actually gone up since.
After reading the editorial, my mother-in-law clipped it out and mailed to me with a note:
Saw this–I know it’s an “old” topic–but still in the news!
That’s the infuriating part of this story for many people–that it’s still in the news, from the New York Daily News to the UK’s Daily Mail. Of course, Baba mailed me the story because she had read about Kennedy’s unrelenting and misguided crusade last summer in a piece I wrote for the Washington Post magazine.
I anguished over that story: Before I pitched it, after it was accepted, and each step along the way during the reporting and writing process. I agonized over every sentence, every edit. I agonized because I didn’t want to give any oxygen to anti-vaccine activism, but when it became obvious to me that one of their celebrity crusaders was engaged in newsworthy activities, I felt the story of his obsessive crusade was legitimate. The reactions were all over the map.
I’ve spent enough time with Kennedy and argued with him enough to know that he’s gone down a deep rabbit hole. It’s not just that he can’t let go of the discredited thimerosal/autism connection. It’s his irresponsible conspiracy talk involving the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), calling it a “sock puppet” of the pharmaceutical industry. And his shameless hyperbole, which he has ramped up in recent weeks. For example, here’s what Kennedy said last month before a crowd in California:
“They get the shot, that night they have a fever of 103, they go to sleep and three months later their brain is gone,” Kennedy, 61, said, reported the Sacramento Bee. “This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.”
A California state legislator who has introduced a bill to tighten the state rules on vaccine exemptions has a quote in that Sacramento Bee article:
“I think it is dangerous that he [Kennedy] is spreading misinformation about something that’s very important for public health,” Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, a pediatrician, said in an interview. “Autism rates have continued to rise even though we are not using thimerosal in vaccines for children,” he added. “We still haven’t figured out exactly what causes autism. We do know it’s not vaccines.”
That’s what’s even more puzzling about Kennedy’s rhetoric. The vaccine ingredient he is most hopped up about was removed from U.S. childhood vaccines nearly 15 years ago (out of an abundance of caution and in response to parental fears). So why is he still ranting about vaccines today the way he does? When I was writing my profile on him, his focus was on thimerosal. He got upset, he said, when his critics branded him as anti-vaccine. He made it seem like all he cared about was getting people to listen to him about thimerosal and CDC’s supposed efforts to cover-up the evidence of thimerosal’s harm–which was the story that he and others unsuccessfully peddled in the mid-2000s.
But Kennedy is as disingenuous as he hyperbolic. Several weeks ago, I attended an event held at NYU’s law school, where Kennedy was appearing on a panel about thimerosal and vaccines. The event was combined with a screening of a documentary called, Trace Amounts, which Kennedy has been promoting. (The movie does not have a distributor, so it is being privately screened at various venues.)
Before the film was shown, Kennedy was introduced by an independent scholar affiliated with NYU’s law school. I took notes. Here’s how he started off:
I am fiercely pro-vaccine. I had all my children vaccinated. I believe that vaccines have saved millions of lives. But it is essential we have a safe vaccine supply.
Notice the double talk and the inference–that our vaccine supply is unsafe. He continued, launching into an anti-CDC tirade:
It’s an issue of corruption. The CDC is a cesspool of corruption. The CDC is cataclysmically conflicted. It is no longer focused on human health. It is focused on money.
You get the idea. The CDC is just a subsidiary of Big Pharma, and American journalists are too cowardly to investigate this captive agency. He goes on to mention that, “today, kids get 69 vaccines. When I was a little boy, I had 5 vaccines.”
In actuality, today’s children, from birth to 6, are innoculated for 14 diseases (yes, some with multiple doses), and six diseases between 7-18 years old. (This includes a recommended annual flu vaccine.) The impression Kennedy gives, though, is that today’s generation is receiving more vaccines than is necessary (after all, he only got 5!). Naturally, this is because the CDC is a “sock puppet” of Big Pharma, as Kennedy recently put it to one of his audiences. As the parent of two young children, I’m glad my two boys have received immunity from many more diseases than was possible when Kennedy was 5 years old.
Kennedy’s fear-mongering, combined with his inflammatory language, is toxic. Here’s an AP article reporting on the aftermath of his visit to Sacramento:
A California bill that would sharply limit vaccination waivers after a measles outbreak at Disneyland has generated such an acidic debate that the proposal’s author was under added security this week.
Authorities wouldn’t specify the extra protections around state Sen. Richard Pan on Friday, but the level of anger over the measure has been clear.
Opponents have flooded the Capitol to stand up for parental rights, and images that compare Pan to Adolf Hitler have circulated online.
Let me stop here for a second to point out the danger of media amplification of this tiny fringe element. It is for this reason that I held off on writing about Kennedy’s latest campaign–until now. It is a real quandary for journalists who are obligated to report newsworthy events, but who also don’t want to give undue attention to a tiny minority.
But the more headlines I saw Kennedy generating on his anti-vaccine tour, the more I felt obligated to weigh in on his latest shenanigans. Additionally, as Slate notes:
anti-vaxxers turn out in droves. They are few in number—representing less than single-digit percentage points of most states’ populations—but extremely passionate. Their tendency to cluster means they remain a significant risk for supporting outbreaks of disease. They are organized by well-funded groups financed by family foundations. They still gather at rallies and fundraisers featuring disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield, whose claim that vaccines cause autism was later found to be a complete fraud. Their voices are amplified by notorious anti-vax celebrity cranks such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
As a result of this disparity in activism, anti-vaxxers have been successful in defeating pro–public health legislation that would eliminate some exemptions in a number of states, including Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and most recently, North Carolina. Bills in Texas, New Jersey, and California are still being hotly contested. Well-organized vaccination opponents flood legislators with a near-constant stream of materials of dubious scientific or legal validity. And, of course, Kennedy participates, traveling around to states in contention, promoting a conspiracy-theory documentary called Trace Amounts. This documentary focuses on the manufactured controversy surrounding thimerosal, an ethylmercury-based preservative that was removed from the vast majority of childhood vaccines in 2001. (Autism rates did not decline.)
So Kennedy is not just whipping up anti-vaccine emotions; he may well be influencing policy. That’s newsworthy.
And yet…I’m still torn. Julie Leask, an Australian public health researcher who is one of my go-to sources on the vaccine communication issue, has recently published an important article titled, “Should we do battle with antivaccination activists?”
Radical antivaccination groups, unlike industry bodies, are difficult to regulate. They arise organically, consisting of small core groups of highly motivated and vocal individuals who devote large amounts of time and energy to their cause. As for other such movements, a highly adversarial strategy could give oxygen to antivaccination activists, who may believe that persecution legitimises their efforts within a martyrdom frame. It also affords more attention to them, stimulating highly polarized discussions in social and traditional media, and perpetuating a false sense that vaccination is a highly contested topic.
Julia Belluz, a Vox health reporter, is also vexed by the media amplification concerns I expressed. She hast just published a really smart and helpful piece that asks:
The debate over how to handle peddlers of pseudoscience comes up again and again in the newsroom. With every Food Babe, Dr. Oz, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Jenny McCarthy, we mull some combination of the following: Do they deserve to be addressed? Should we seriously engage their ideas? And if we cover them, what’s the best way to do so: mockery? Earnest debunking?
Her probing discussion is music to my hears, including a quote from the social scientist Brendan Nyhan, who says that, “the principle of holding people accountable for saying misleading things is an important one.”