Maybe you don’t know much about Children’s Health Defense, but it’s a newer anti-vaccine group run by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has become one of the high priests of the anti-vaccine religion. RFK Jr., scion of the Kennedy family who dominated US politics for decades, has gone off the deep end of conspiracies from the assassinations of his father, Robert F. Kennedy, and uncle, John F. Kennedy, to the discredited belief that vaccines cause autism.
Children’s Health Defense, as a proxy for RFK Jr.’s lunatic beliefs about vaccines, decided to utilize ad hominem attacks on Dr. Paul Offit as part of their offensive against vaccines. Why? Because the anti-vaccine crackpots lack any evidence of any of their claims, so the best they can do is attack people with childish name-calling and logical fallacies. If this wasn’t about saving children’s lives with safe and effective vaccines, I’d just laugh at these people. They are ridiculous members of a lunatic fringe.
Although I’m not going to waste your time tearing apart each absurd attack they make on Dr. Offit, I’ll tackle a few. For educational purposes only!
All about the Children’s Health Defense
Despite the name of the group, Children’s Health Defense, they appear to have one goal – destroy vaccines and any individual or organization that accepts the powerful science that vaccines are extremely safe and extremely effective. They should change their name to “Children’s Anti-Health Pseudoscience.” Yeah, I flunked Corporate Naming 101 in grad school.
The group’s anti-vaccine bona fides are quite clear by checking out some of the people associated with the group. Let’s start with Robert F. Kennedy Jr himself. Numerous articles about him have been published on this website over the past few years. If you haven’t forgotten, he genuflected to newly elected President Trump in a vain effort to head up an anti-vaccine “commission” in the new administration. Anyone who thinks RFK Jr is a Democrat should read that previous sentence and link very carefully. He’s so obsessed with his delusions about vaccines, he basically begged Trump for this commission, because no science-supporting President would ever agree to create it.
But there’s more. The loquacious Orac once wrote:
Yes, RFK, Jr. is antivaccine to the core.
And Professor Dorit Rubinstein Reiss (also hated by the anti-vaccine zealots) wrote a letter to the California legislature in response to RFK Jr regarding the constitutionality of California’s SB277 which essentially mandated vaccines for all children entering kindergarten. She wrote:
In short, SB277 is a constitutional and reasonable measure to make our schools safer from diseases.
In other words, RFK Jr is so blinded by his hatred of vaccines, ignoring science and logic, that he pushes tropes about vaccines, including one about the constitutionality of California’s relatively successful mandatory vaccination law.
But there’s more to Children’s Health Defense. One of their board members is the infamous anti-vaccine lunatic, JB Handley. He has an unhealthy obsession with any pseudoscience that supports his beliefs that vaccines, in some magical way, are linked to autism. He tried to use a discredited and unscientific study by Christopher Exley in a vain attempt to claim that it was proof about vaccines and autism.
One of the members of the Children’s Health Defense scientific advisory board is Luc Montagnier. Although Dr. Montagnier has some sterling credentials, including a Nobel Prize in Medicine, he has wandered over to the side of pseudoscience (like another Nobel Prize winner, Linus Pauling). He seemed to fall solidly on the side of homeopathy, which is a pseudoscientific scam.
I could spend another 2000 words describing the lunatics that are all over RFK Jr’s pet project. There’s George W Lucier who thinks that there’s “mercury” in vaccines. There’s Mary Holland, an attorney who pushes all types of anti-vaccine woo and spends an inordinate amount of time hating Bill Gates, who has made vaccinating children in poorer countries his legacy. There’s Alicia Silverstone, an actress without any scientific credentials whatsoever, but a famous name. Does that remind the readers of someone? Oh yeah.
Paul Offit’s background
But let’s get to the point of this article, an attack piece on Dr. Paul Offit and his character by Children’s Health Defense and Robert F Kennedy Jr. I’m not going to respond to every bit of nonsense on the article, but I want to focus on The top 4.
For those few readers who don’t follow the anti-vaccine nonsense, you may not know much about Dr. Offit, so let me start with a brief biography. Here’s just a partial list of his credentials:
- He earned a bachelor’s degree from Tufts University and an MD from the University of Maryland.
- He is the Director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
- He is the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology and professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
- He has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles, most of which discuss vaccines and vaccinations.
- He is an internationally recognized expert in the fields of virology and immunology.
- He was co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, which protects children from the rotavirus infection, Prior to the release of the rotavirus vaccines in the USA, the disease was responsible for more than 400,000 doctor visits; more than 200,000 emergency room visits; 55,000 to 70,000 hospitalizations; and 20 to 60 deaths in children younger than 5 years of age. Each year, prior to the advent of the vaccine, an estimated 450,000 children died of this disease worldwide. I am not a hero worshipper by any means, but the lives saved by this vaccine are a credit to Paul Offit’s devotion to the health of children. Yes, he was amply rewarded for this vaccine, but given the number of lives it has saved, it works out to a few pennies per life saved. To me, who values children’s lives more than anything else, Dr. Offit is a hero for inventing the vaccine.
- He has been a member of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.
- He has published several books about vaccines, vaccine denialism and other types of junk medicine:
- The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis
- Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases
- Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure
- Vaccines and Your Child: Separating Fact from Fiction
- Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All
- Your Baby’s Best Shot: Why Vaccines Are Safe and Save Lives (by Allison Hagood and Stacy Mintzer Herlihy, and a foreword by Paul Offit, )
- Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine
- Pandora’s Lab – Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong
- Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Information (reviewed by Professor Reiss).
Dr. Offit is a highly accomplished expert on vaccines based on his academic background, his publications, and his experience. Of course, he probably doesn’t have the acting credentials of Alicia Silverstone. Oh wait, if we’re talking about the health of children I prefer an accomplished scientist over a mid-level actress of marginal skills.
Because the anti-vaccine lunatics lack any of the credentials or authority of Dr. Offit, they have to rely upon ridiculous personal attacks or claims that he is the Skeptical Raptor. Yeah, that happened, and the feathery dinosaur is humbled that the anti-vaccine world conflates him with Dr. Offit.
That lame 10,000 vaccines trope
RFK Jr. used one of the more sustained zombie tropes of the anti-vaccine world is a claim that Dr. Offit threatened children with 10,000 vaccines. This is based on a claim that Offit has made that the infant’s immune system is so robust and powerful, it can tolerate 10,000 vaccines.
It doesn’t mean a literal injection of 10,000 vaccine doses. That’s over 10 liters of fluid injected, which would kill even a large adult with fluid overload. And it would necessitate 10,000 separate injections which would be difficult, again, even on a large adult. This is how the anti-science “thinker” works – not understanding what he actually meant, but because it sounded scary, they create a scary meme around it. The anti-vaccine crowd does these kinds of logical fallacies because, as I need to remind everyone, they lack any other type of evidence supporting their nonsense.
If the anti-vaxxers would take the time to actually read scientific literature, Dr. Offit explains why multiple vaccines are not a danger to children. He did not claim that 10,000 actual vaccines be injected into any child. He’s a well-educated, well-trained expert on children’s immune system, and his comment was about the immune system not about actual injections.
The child’s immune system is assaulted by millions of antigens every day. If it were weak and pathetic, as claimed by the anti-vaccine world, sure, 10,000 vaccines would be terrible. But the child’s immune system is quite strong, and could easily respond to 10,000 antigen – but, of course, we give children less than 100 different antigens by vaccines over their lives.
But RFK Jr., who only looks for claims, no matter how ridiculous they are, to support his pseudoscientific beliefs about vaccines. That’s how a religion works, and that’s why the anti-vaccine world is a religion.
RFK Jr. is obsessed with mercury. It’s a ridiculous obsession that makes no sense scientifically.
According to the anti-vaccine crowd, one of the worst of the toxic vaccine chemicals is thiomersal (or thimerosal), often just called “mercury” by those without a solid science education. I bet if you Google “toxic vaccine chemicals,” thiomersal will be in nearly every hit.
Let’s make some points clear right now. This is NOT mercury in its elemental form, which you might remember from old-style medical thermometers. So there isn’t a pool of mercury in the vaccine vial. Moreover, thiomersal is ONLY used, at least in vaccines, in multi-use flu vaccine vials. Although there is no evidence that thiomersal has any effect on children at the vaccine dose level, manufacturers removed it from almost all vaccines.
Thimerosal is a mercury atom with an attached thiolate and ethyl group. The thiolate group causes thiomersal to be water soluble (dissolves in water), whereas the ethyl group “protects” the body from the effects of the elemental mercury. The mercury atom does not disassociate from the ethyl or thiolate groups, which is a point that the anti-vaccine types fundamentally ignore.
To call ethylmercury simply mercury would be like calling table salt, sodium chloride, chlorine. Yes, chlorine is a poisonous gas, but when it’s in the ionic form, chloride, it’s just an ion that gives flavor to food and helps maintain the balance of water and other ions in the blood. And yes, there is a toxic dose of table salt, but it has nothing to do with “chlorine” – it has everything to do with the ionic balance of the blood.
Thiomersal is a toxic compound, there is no denying that – it kills bacteria. But let’s get back to the toxicology of this chemical.
First of all, the half-life of thiomersal in blood is around 2.2 days. That might seem long, but it means half is gone in a couple of days, cleared out by the kidneys. It does not accumulate anywhere in the body.
But the math is even more telling. This flu vaccine, given once a year, has a maximum dose of 25 micrograms of ethylmercury (but not elemental mercury). According to an NIH database, the LD50, that is, the approximate dose at which 50% of organisms will die (in this case a mouse), is 98 mg/kg body weight, if delivered subcutaneously, generally how vaccines are delivered.
A 20 kg child would get 25 micrograms of ethylmercury in one injection every year. The theoretical LD50 dose for that same child would be around 2000 mg of thiomersal, or about 80,000 times higher than the amount of thiomersal in one vaccine dose – of course, all childhood vaccines lack thimerosal.
So, you would have to inject your child 80,000 times a day, every day, to make it potentially toxic. And no, dose-response relationships are not linear. That doesn’t mean that there’s some tiny risk of death from even a small dose of thiomersal. There is actually NO risk. And again, since there’s no thiomersal in pediatric vaccines, this argument is incredibly ridiculous.
Clearly, we have solid scientific data that show us that thiomersal is totally unrelated to autism. And it is completely safe in vaccines. This illogical removal of thiomersal from vaccines makes it nearly impossible to have multi-use vials.
Thus, every vaccine must be a single-use prefilled syringe. That has rapidly driven up the costs of vaccines. Wait. That’s more evidence that antivaccination lunatics are in the pockets of Big Pharma. They pushed to get rid of thiomersal to make more profits for Big Pharma. That was an awesome move on their part.
To call thiomersal one of the “toxic vaccine chemicals” is ridiculous and lacks scientific support. But RFK Jr can’t listen to the science – but lawyers frequently ignore science.
The fake debate
Robert F Kennedy Jr keeps pushing Dr. Offit to engage in a debate. This is part of RFK Jr.’s love of false equivalency – he thinks his nonsense pseudoscience is equivalent to real science. It isn’t. A proper debate would include the millions of highly educated, trained, and experienced scientists sitting on one side of the debate, each getting an opportunity to state the science that they know.
On the other side would be RFK Jr, Alicia Silverstone, JB Handley, and a handful of oft-retracted and discredited “scientists.” It would be a rout, with RFK Jr and his anti-vaccine sycophants left crying.
The only thing that matters is evidence – the mountain of evidence has thoroughly refuted any link between vaccines and autism. It has thoroughly refuted any linke between thiomersal and autism. If the anti-vaccine religion has ANY peer-reviewed articles, published in real journals (not predatory, garbage journals), then there can be a discussion, maybe between Dr. Offit and the author of this non-existent paper.
The fake scientists of the anti-vaccine religion
RFK Jr wouldn’t know a real scientist from a fake one, because he certainly is in love with the fake ones.
He refers to Christopher Shaw, well-known and well-compensated anti-vaccine shill, to support the claim about vaccines and autism. RFK Jr., of course, conveniently ignores (or maybe doesn’t understand how science works), the demonstrable fact that Christopher Shaw publishes bogus articles in junk journals. And has had several articles retracted for all kinds of malfeasance.
He also refers to Christopher Exley’s thoroughly ridiculed paper about aluminum in vaccines. Orac’s takedown of these hypotheses is right on point:
First off, no, aluminum has only been “linked” with ASD by antivaccine cranks. There is really no good evidence that aluminum in vaccines causes ASDs, try as as antivaxers might to try to “prove” that there is. Particularly telling is that Exley cites papers by Tomljenovic and Shaw, who are well known for their proclivity to publish papers chock full of bad(and fraudulent) science purporting to link aluminum adjuvants to autism and other conditions. Any citation of one of their papers is a good indication of bad science. Heck, I even deconstructed one of the papers cited.
So, right off the bat, the scientific justification for this study is highly dubious, but it was done anyway; so we have to deal with the results. What did Exley’s team do? They obtained brain tissue samples from autistic people from the Oxford Brain Bank, which is hosted in the Department of Neuropathology of the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust and the Academic Unit of Neuropathology of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences of Oxford University. The bank stores sample and clinical data relevant for research into neurological diseases. From this bank, it appears that Exley received five specimens of frozen brain tissue (4 males, 1 female, age range 15-50), consisting of samples from tissue from temporal, frontal, parietal and occipital lobes and hippocampus of each individual. Aluminum levels were measured using transversely heated atomic absorption spectroscopy.
These “researchers” are, at best, confused about what constitutes good science. At worse, they’re so wrapped up in their anti-vaccine nonsense that they are pushing a narrative to support their pre-ordained beliefs.
Enough with this nonsense
I’ve barely scratched the surface of Robert F Kennedy Jr.’s, and his Children’s Health Defense organization, attack on Dr. Paul Offit. Literally, every other paragraph has misinformation, myths, tropes, or outright lies.
The science is settled – there is no link between vaccines and autism. Frankly, vaccines cause adults.
And, there is no mercury in vaccines.
And, Dr. Offit is a hero because his vaccine has prevented untold suffering. And saved thousands of lives.