On April 20, 2017, Tucker Carlson from Fox News interviewed Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on his show, and they talked about vaccines. Mr. Kennedy pointed out that this is only his second interview on the topic in ten years, and blamed it on advertising dollars (which, apparently, did not prevent Mr. Carlson from hosting him). So why are RFK Jr vaccine beliefs ignored by the mainstream press?
The reality, however, is that journalists familiar with Mr. Kennedy’s past utterances on vaccines avoid him is because of his history of saying things that are blatantly wrong, and journalists who give him credence may well end up with egg on their face. This interview is a good example.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is an environmental lawyer. Best as I can tell he started speaking on vaccines in 2005, with an embarrassingly wrong article posted on both Salon and Rolling Stone that claimed that the CDC was engaged in a conspiracy to hide the fact that the vaccine preservative thimerosal was linked to autism.
After five corrections of the blatant errors in Kennedy’s article, Salon also retracted it, explaining that critics’ exposure of further problems “further eroded any faith we had in the story’s value. We’ve grown to believe the best reader service is to delete the piece entirely.”
Kennedy has repeated the same grossly inaccurate statements – claiming a conspiracy to hide the fact that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism – since, and has not recanted, most recently publishing a book making the claim ironically named “Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak,” and also pushing a challenge to science supporters on the topic, following in the footsteps of holocaust deniers, climate change deniers, anti-vaccine activists, evolution deniers, and others.
In the intervening years studies from all around the world looked at thimerosal in vaccines and did not find a link between it and autism. More recently see publications here and here. The global nature of these studies means that even if the CDC wanted to conspire to hide a link, it wouldn’t be able to, not without controlling the rest of the world. No serious scientific source today really thinks that the tiny amounts of thimerosal in vaccines (and as a reminder, all childhood vaccines, with the exception of multi-dose influenza, contain no, or almost no, thimerosal) causes autism or other neuropsychological problems – or any other serious, long-term harms. But Kennedy does. Because conspiracy.
RFK Jr vaccine statements are hostile, and also very, very extreme. In a famous quote, he said:
They can put anything they want in that vaccine and they have no accountability for it,[…] They get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone…This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.
Not only is this untrue, but it’s highly offensive to children with autism to say their brain is gone, as is the comparison to the holocaust. Unsurprisingly, science supporters were dismayed by Kennedy’s claims – denied by the Trump transition team – that President Trump offered him the position of leading a vaccine commission.
This RFK Jr vaccine interview
On 20 April 2017, Kennedy had an interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News that centered on Kennedy’s views on vaccines. The interview with Mr. Carlson lived up to Mr. Kennedy’s previous dismal standards of accuracy on vaccines. His claims ranged from simply untrue to subtly misleading, all clearly designed to create fear and doubt about vaccines. Mr. Carlson did not have the knowledge to counter them, and being misled by his interviewee is exactly what other journalists avoid by not letting Mr. Kennedy repeat his past and provide misinformation about vaccines.
Let’s examine the claims (I am going to deviate from his order and end with his opening statement, for reasons that I think will become clear).
Mr. Kennedy claimed that vaccine manufacturers have “blanket legal immunity” from being sued. He says “no matter how sloppy the line protocol, or how absent the quality control, no matter how toxic the ingredient, or egregious the injury to your child, you cannot sue them.”
That’s untrue. Under the Supreme Court decision in Breusewitz v. Wyeth, there are limit on the ability to bring design defect claims against manufacturers for childhood vaccine injuries covered by the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVICP). But other claims – like manufacturing defects claims – can be brought, as can claim under other headings. Some have to go through NVICP first – others don’t. For example, there are suits pending about shingles vaccines in the federal courts, and a separate claim about mumps vaccine.
There is no blanket legal immunity.
There’s also no support to his claim that the vaccine market became “enormously profitable” as a result of the act or that the act affected vaccine creation. Our vaccine technology improved, but the attempts to connect them to the act are, frankly, strange. To give one example, MMR was developed before the act, chicken pox vaccine’s development started in Japan – not the United States – in the 1970s, efforts to develop an Hib vaccine also dated to the 1970s, a first hepatitis B vaccine was developed in the 1980s, and efforts to develop the rotavirus and HPV vaccines were also underway in the 1980s, before the act. In other words, most vaccines on the schedule were in the works, in some shape or form, before the act. They were approved later, true, but the process of development and approval is long. I would like to see Mr. Kennedy point to one routinely recommended vaccine whose development started after the act. And then, to some causal evidence between the development and the act.
Mr. Kennedy seems troubled by the fact that his children – and mine – can be protected from more diseases than he was (or I was). Honestly, I think it’s a good thing my children can be protected from more diseases. If his concern is that maybe these are too many vaccines for children to handle, that’s not true, either.
Mr. Kennedy then claimed tha hepatitis B is not “casually communicable”, that it “comes from unprotected sex or using and sharing needle.” That, too, is untrue. Hepatitis B can transmit in other ways, including via going through a birth canal of an infected mother, through microscopic drops of blood left on things around the house (maybe Mr. Kennedy may have forgotten what it’s like to have a crawler or curious baby, and doesn’t think that’s possible), or bites or drops of blood in daycare. Why do we protect babies from hepatitis B, a virus that can cause liver disease and cancer? Because if exposed, they are at high risk – 90% – of developing the chronic version, which can lead to liver disease and cancer (pdf). Because before the vaccines, more than 16000 children contracted Hepatitis B before the age of 10. Because babies and children deserve better than to get a virus that causes liver disease and cancer.
If Mr. Kennedy has any questions about why other vaccines are on the schedule, he can read the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices that recommended including them, or, if that is too complex, the Vaccine Education Center of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has short explanations comparing the risks and benefits of each vaccine.
Mr. Kennedy repeated his claims about thimerosal, which, again, no serious scientific source agrees with today.
Then Mr. Kennedy used a specific study to try and claim vaccines have high risk. Specifically, he said:
Last month, a group of very prestigious scientists with a robust study of African children, studied the DPT—Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis vaccine, which is the most widely distributed vaccine in the world. Virtually every kid in Africa gets it.
They did a vaccinated vs unvaccinated study, which has never been done. And what they found was that…kids who got the vaccine, little babies, were ten times as likely to die in the next two months as the kids who did not.
And what they concluded was—and this study was funded by the Danish government, and again these people are very bulletproof scientists. They said that that vaccine is killing more people than diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis combined.
The study Mr. Kennedy is speaking of is a bit of a strange thing. It looks at data about children in Guinea, Africa in 1984-1987, and addresses the use of the DPT vaccine. It looks at 1057 children total, which is a pretty small number that had an even smaller rate of death. It does not clearly explain the methods, which is a problem in assessing them. It didn’t address cause of death. So we have a small number of deaths in both groups, and we don’t know why the children died. This matters because with such small groups, death rates across the group might be different just by chance – and without knowing the cause, there’s no good way to say vaccines had anything to do with it. Further, this increased mortality in the vaccinated group was partially ameliorated by receipt of an oral polio vaccine, even though children in the vaccinated group didn’t die from polio. This, too, flies in the face of Mr. Kennedy’s “too many vaccines cause harm” scenario.
So we have a weak, small study that does not clearly show anything, looking at a vaccine that isn’t used in the United States since the 1990s – today the United States uses the DTaP, which has a different pertussis component – and examining deaths in an African country that was, and still is, very different from the United States in many ways, thirty years ago. What does it have to be with the different vaccines used in the United States today? With the vaccine schedule that Mr. Kennedy talked about, with the addition of new vaccines since the 1980s (the DTP he refers to was created in the 1940s)? Nothing. It’s hard to see why this study is brought except to scare people, suggest vaccines are dangerous.
Oh, and before each vaccine is put on the market, it is tested in children that get that vaccine compared to children that get a control, and rates of problems in the groups are compared. That is part of the licensing process.
In short, Mr. Kennedy’s claims were inaccurate or untrue, and it’s hard to see them as designed to do anything except cause people to fear vaccines – fear them because of things that are not true.
Mr. Kennedy opened the interview by saying he is pro-vaccine, that he never said anything against vaccines. But he uses a small African study based on 30-year old data and a vaccine not used in the United States to imply vaccines kill. He compares vaccines to a holocaust (not in this interview). He implies the vaccine schedule is unsafe and there is no quality control. His claim that he is pro-vaccine is no more true than the other things he said. He believes vaccines are dangerous and bad, in spite of the evidence, and he clearly claims there is a conspiracy to hide it – he claims the pharmaceutical companies bought Congress and silenced the media from interviewing people like him.
The reason experienced journalists don’t want to interview Kennedy is that they know that the RFK Jr vaccine beliefs are unreliable, contain untrue statements that go against the science, and are backed with ill-founded conspiracy theories.
Mr. Carlson, seems, did not have the benefit of his colleagues’ lessons, and fell into the trap of taking Kennedy seriously, ending with a segment that’s embarrassingly wrong and that has the potential to scare parents from protecting their kids from disease. Pity.