Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has been a frequent topic of this blog dating back to 2005, when I first became aware of him through his conspiracy theory-based antivaccine “report” Deadly Immunity, jointly published by Salon.com and Rolling Stone, to both publications’ eternal shame, especially Rolling Stone, which reposted the article several years later after having “accidentally” removed it during a site redesign. At the time, I deconstructed RFK Jr.’s tinfoil hat opus in great depth on the first version of this blog and later reposted the same. Since then, I’ve periodically written about RFK Jr.’s antivaccine stylings whenever he came up in the news, to the point where he has his own set of tags on this blog.
One thing that’s always puzzled me is why the rest of the Kennedy clan has remained so silent for so long about their prominent family member’s promotion of ideas that endanger children. I understand to some extent. The Kennedy clan has suffered numerous tragedies and are the frequent target of attacks. In a way, they are not unlike American royalty, and, of course, royal families are insular. They stick together, and don’t usually air their dirty laundry in public. Oddly enough, with RFK, Jr., that’s changed. His near-constant antivaccine propagandizing over the last 14 years (at least) has apparently become too much for the Kennedys in the face of the largest measles outbreak in a generation, to the point that three of his relatives (Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Joseph P. Kennedy II, and Maeve Kennedy McKean) have authored an op-ed in Politico entitled RFK Jr. Is Our Brother and Uncle. He’s Tragically Wrong About Vaccines. The subtitle is even more devastating: “We love Robert F. Kennedy Jr., but he is part of a misinformation campaign that’s having heartbreaking—and deadly—consequences.” Indeed.
I can only guess at how much anguish and soul searching occurred in the Kennedy clan before the decision to write this op-ed was made. After all, no one knows what the repercussions in the family might ultimately be. We also don’t know what the Kennedys have been saying to RFK Jr. in private at family gatherings and private conversations. Given that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the former chair of the Global Virus Network, whose mission is to “strengthen medical research and response to current viral causes of human disease and to prepare for new viral pandemic threats” and part of whose research involves the development of vaccines, I can only guess that there was…disapproval of her brother’s ravings. Given that Maeve Kennedy McKean is the executive director of Georgetown University’s Global Health Initiative and how important vaccines are to improving global health, I can’t imagine that she was pleased with her uncle’s crankery. You get the idea.
The non-RFK Jr. Kennedys begin:
Americans have every right to be alarmed about the outbreak of measles in pockets of our country with unusually high rates of unvaccinated citizens, especially children. Right now, officials in 22 states are grappling with a resurgence of the disease, which was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000. With over 700 cases already reported and indications that more outbreaks will occur, 2019 will likely see the most recorded cases of measles in decades. And it’s not just measles. In Maine, health officials in March reported 41 new cases of whooping cough, another disease once thought to be a relic of the past—more than twice as many cases as this time last year.
This problem isn’t only an American one. The World Health Organization reports a 300 percent increase in the numbers of measles cases around the world this year compared with the first three months of 2018. More than 110,000 people are now dying from measles every year. The WHO, the health arm of the United Nations, has listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019. Most cases of preventable diseases occur among unvaccinated children, because parents have chosen not to vaccinate, have delayed vaccination, have difficulty accessing vaccines, or the children were too young to receive the vaccines.
These tragic numbers are caused by the growing fear and mistrust of vaccines—amplified by internet doomsayers. Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—Joe and Kathleen’s brother and Maeve’s uncle—is part of this campaign to attack the institutions committed to reducing the tragedy of preventable infectious diseases. He has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines.
We love Bobby. He is one of the great champions of the environment. His work to clean up the Hudson River and his tireless advocacy against multinational organizations who have polluted our waterways and endangered families has positively affected the lives of countless Americans. We stand behind him in his ongoing fight to protect our environment. However, on vaccines he is wrong.
As if this weren’t enough, the three Kennedys go on to contrast RFK Jr.’s antivaccine activism with the history of the Kennedy family with respect to vaccines and global health, calling him an “outlier” in the Kennedy family and noting:
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy urged the 80 million Americans, including almost 5 million children, who had not been vaccinated for polio to receive the Salk vaccine, which he called “this miraculous drug.” In the same year, he signed an executive order creating the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has spent billions of dollars over the past decades in support of vaccine campaigns in developing countries.
President Kennedy signed the Vaccination Assistance Act in 1962 to, in the words of a CDC report, “achieve as quickly as possible the protection of the population, especially of all preschool children … through intensive immunization activity.” In a message to Congress that year, Kennedy said: “There is no longer any reason why American children should suffer from polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, or tetanus … I am asking the American people to join in a nationwide vaccination program to stamp out these four diseases.”
While serving as attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy promoted community empowerment models to address urgent social needs like better health care, leading to the development of community health centers, which our uncle Ted Kennedy championed throughout his long career in the Senate. Community health centers have been on the front lines of vaccination campaigns for more than 50 years in rural America, in inner-city neighborhoods and on Native American reservations to immunize our most vulnerable populations.
Senator Kennedy led numerous campaigns for reauthorization of the Vaccination Assistance Act, took up the fight for the Child Immunization Initiative of 1993, and authored many other measures to increase the availability of vaccines for uninsured adults through community health centers.
This is a marked contrast to RFK Jr.’s record. I find it worth recounting from time to time, just how bad RFK Jr. has been promoting antivaccine pseudoscience for as long as I’ve had this blog—at least. I only noticed him in 2005; I’m not familiar with his antivaccine activities prior to that. It doesn’t matter. Since 2005, his history of antivaccine activism has been so voluminous that to cover it all would require more verbiage than even Orac likes to use in a blog post.
Since the cranktastic conspiracyfest “report” Deadly Immunity, RFK Jr. has can’t seem to stop the conspiracy mongering over the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal in vaccines and his obsession with his belief that there is link between mercury in vaccines and autism. It’s a belief he can’t seem to let go of, even though thimerosal was removed from all childhood vaccines other than the flu vaccine in 2002 (and even then thimerosal-free flu vaccines have become the norm), with no slowdown in the rate of increase in autism diagnoses, a slowdown that would be expected to be detectable a few years later. It’s a link that’s long been refuted by epidemiological studies (also this), but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to use various cases to “prove” a link between vaccines and autism, insinuate that the CDC is covering up a thimerosal-autism link, out-crank another vaccine-autism crank Sharyl Attkisson, use the case of Poul Thorsen to distract from inconvenient science, and link his environmental activism to his antivaccine activism, thus tarnishing the environmentalist movement as long as the Kennedy name.
In 2014, RFK Jr. wrote a book entitled Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak: Mercury Toxicity in Vaccines and the Political, Regulatory, and Media Failures That Continue to Threaten Public Health. Around that time, there was also a bit of amusing mainstream media attention in the form of an article by Keith Kloor in The Washington Post entitled Robert Kennedy Jr.’s belief in autism-vaccine connection, and its political peril. There are a few juicy tidbits that I learned in the article, although at the time I thought that the article seemed a bit more sympathetic to RFK, Jr. than I would liked. If you really want to see how far RFK Jr. has fallen, how much of a crank he has become, just look at how in 2017 he and his antivaccine group World Mercury Project teamed with Robert De Niro (who’s become quite the antivaccine crank himself) to issue a “$100,000 challenge” to pro-vaccine advocates. to “prove” that vaccines are safe for pregnant women by pointing to a peer-reviewed study showing that”thimerosal is safe in the amounts contained in vaccines currently being administered to American children and pregnant women.” Of course, he got to pick the judges and charge a “processing fee” of $50 to “to discourage frivolous submissions from flooding WMP staff.” It was a scam worthy of that old antivax crank Jock Doubleday himself!
RFK Jr.’s antivaccine activity has continued, and he’s adopted the old antivaccine dodge of donning the mantle of a “vaccine safety activist” to disguise his antivaccine beliefs. One of the more disturbing incidents with which RFK Jr. has been involved in recent years was when Donald Trump invited him to Trump Tower during the transition period after the 2016 election to meet with him, apparently, about heading up an “vaccine safety commission,” a move that inspired antivaccine groups to gather up anecdotes of “vaccine injury” to send to President-Elect Trump. It’s not clear what exactly happened during that meeting. RFK Jr. claimed that President-Elect Trump had invited him to chair a “vaccine safety” commission, but the transition team denied that claim within hours. Of course, given how long Donald Trump’s history of spouting antivaccine pseudoscience was, it was a horrifying site to see an antivaxer like RFK Jr. meet with the President-Elect. Fortunately, the ongoing measles outbreak appears to have reversed President Trump’s antivaccine proclivities, at least for now.
If you want to get an idea of just how far down the rabbit hole of antivaccine beliefs RFK Jr. has gone, take a look at the sorts of antivaccine pseudoscience he’s championed, whether Mark Geier’s or overwhelmingly awful epidemiological studies. He’s so far down that hole that his name has become toxic even to critics of medicine like Peter Götzsche, who, upon finding out that he’d be sharing the stage with RFK Jr., promptly (albeit grudgingly while complaining about the “Twitter mob”) withdrew his acceptance of a speaking invitation from an antivaccine physicians’ group disguised as a group advocating “informed consent.”
Now that’s toxic.
Risibly, RFK Jr. has been referring to himself at least since 2014 as not just “pro-vaccine,” but “fiercely pro-vaccine.” (I first saw him say that on The Dr. Oz Show, of course.) It’s a line he trots out often when he’s called out for being antivaccine. Of course, as I’ve documented more times than I can remember, RFK Jr. is not a “vaccine skeptic.” He is not a “vaccine safety activist.” He is “fiercely” antivaccine and has been for many years. It’s good to see his family calling him out for it.