Robert Kennedy Jr. Fights On Against a Phantom Vaccine Menace


Kennedy Post Cover
Washington Post

Back in 2005, Rolling Stone and Salon jointly published a lurid story, "Deadly Immunity," by Robert Kennedy Jr. in which he claimed that the mercury-based vaccine perservative thimerosal was creating an epidemic of autism and other neurological disorders among children in the United States. In 2011, Salon deleted the error-filled story.

In Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, Keith Kloor does a profile of Kennedy who is still insisting that thimerosal is causing neurological havoc in vaccinated kids. Numerous scientific and medical organizations have reviewed the data and have concluded that there is no evidence that the tiny amounts of thimerosal in vaccines causes neurological damage in children. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a list of studies that compared outcomes between children who received vaccines with thimerosal and those who did not. None reported any difference in neurological outcomes. Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a timeline reporting the conclusions of various scientific and medical societies, e.g., the Institute of Medicine, with regard to the safety of vaccines containing thimerosal.

Kennedy refused to back down when his 2005 article provoked a firestorm of criticism from researchers, Kloor reports in his Post article:

The more Kennedy talked on the subject, the more his rhetoric became hyperbolic. During one 2011 segment on his Air America radio show, he accused government scientists of being "involved in a massive fraud." He said they skewed studies to demonstrate the safety of thimerosal. "I can see that this fraud is doing extraordinary damage to the brains of American children," he said.

Last year, he gave the keynote speech at an anti-vaccine gathering in Chicago. There, he said of a scientist who is a vocal proponent of vaccines and already the object of much hate mail from anti-vaccine activists that this scientist and others like him, "should be in jail, and the key should be thrown away."

Last summer I reported on these inflammatory comments for the Discover magazine Web site, where I have a blog. (I write often about contentious issues in science.) I concluded that Kennedy "has done as much as anyone to spread unwarranted fear and crazy conspiracy theories about vaccines."

Well, yes. Bemusingly, thimerosal was removed as a precautionary measure from all childhood vaccines in the United States except those for influenza in 2001. During that time the reported autism rate in the U.S. has soared. The CDC did not report autism spectrum disorder diagnoses until 2004 at which time it reported a rate in the range of 1 in 500 to 1 in 166 children. By 2014, the CDC reported a diagnosis rate of 1 in 68 children.

What do you call it when the alleged cause is removed, yet the effect gets worse?