By Robert Lowes
WebMD Health News
January 10, 2017
Vaccine critic Robert Kennedy Jr said today that he will accept an assignment from President-elect Donald Trump to head a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity.
"Everybody ought to be able to be assured that the vaccines we have — he's very pro-vaccine, as am I — but they're as safe as they can possibly be," the son of the late US Senator Robert Kennedy told reporters after he met with the incoming president at the Trump Tower in New York City.
But despite what Kennedy told reporters after his meeting with Trump, CNN is reporting that the Trump transition team says no decision has been made on setting up a commission to look at vaccines and autism.
"The President-elect enjoyed his discussion with Robert Kennedy Jr. on a range of issues and appreciates his thoughts and ideas. The President-elect is exploring the possibility of forming a commission on Autism, which affects so many families; however no decisions have been made at this time. The President-elect looks forward to continuing the discussion about all aspects of Autism with many groups and individuals," Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in a statement quoted by CNN.
Kennedy has promoted the widely discredited notion that childhood vaccines and influenza vaccines containing thimerosal, a preservative that contains mercury, can trigger autism and other neurological disorders. Trump has voiced similar views in speeches and tweets.
The alliance of the two men alarms infectious disease experts such as Paul Offit, MD, author of the book Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All.
"He should avail himself of experts in vaccine and vaccine safety instead of conspiracy theorists," Dr Offit told Medscape Medical News.
Kennedy earned a reputation as a vaccine conspiracy theorist with a 2005 article in Rolling Stone magazine — also published online in Salon — that accused government health agencies of covering up the risk of thimerosal in vaccines. By that time, the preservative had been removed or lowered to trace amounts in childhood vaccines as a precaution, although later studies found that there was no causal link between the preservative and autism. Salon later retracted the article over inaccuracies.
Kennedy, a respected environmental activist credited with helping to clean up the Hudson River, plunged into the vaccine wars again in 2014 with a book titled Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak. While covering much of the same ground as the Rolling Stone article, the book describes the supposed thimerosal threat more in terms of neurodevelopmental disorders than autism per se, which had become a lightning-rod word by then.
"They took out everything controversial and just made it pure science," Kennedy told Medscape Medical News that year.
The book's reception in the scientific community was predictable. Steven Salzberg, PhD, a professor of medicine, computer science, and biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, wrote in Forbes at the time that Kennedy's advocacy of bad science "will cost lives if it hasn't already."
The book was published by Skyhorse Publishing, which also has published two books by Andrew Wakefield, whose discredited study linking the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine to autism has fueled the so-called antivax movement. Banned from practicing medicine in Great Britain on account of his research, Wakefield directed a 2016 documentary titled Vaxxed that continues his crusade.
"Potentially a Dangerous Decision"
Wakefield figures into Trump's vaccine agenda because the president-elect met with him last summer, to the delight of his followers. However, Trump had been a critic of current childhood vaccination practices well before that. In 2014, he famously tweeted, "Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn't feel good and changes - AUTISM. Many such cases!"
Dr Offit questions the need for Trump's new vaccine safety commission, saying that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fields an Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. "It already exists; it's doing its job," said Dr Offit, thecoinventor of the rotavirus vaccine, and a frequent contributor to Medscape.
He also questions Kennedy's ability to lead such a scientific endeavor. "What does Robert Kennedy have to offer?" Dr Offit said. "He still believes thimerosal causes autism.
"That's a dead issue. Vaccines are safe and effective and have saved lives."
The announcement that Kennedy will lead a vaccine safety commission also drew criticism from Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
"The appointment of Robert Kennedy Jr to head up a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity is a lot like putting a person who believes the world is flat in charge of the leading global geographic information system initiative," Dr Osterholm told Medscape Medical News. "Mr. Kennedy's appointment is potentially a dangerous decision if it sends a message to parents that vaccines are not safe and not necessary.
"If that happens, kids will get sick and even die because of the misinformation that will come from this commission."
Kennedy and the Trump administration transition team did not respond to requests for an interview.