Sorry Kennedy, Being Anti-Vaccine Does Not Mean You’re Pro-Safe Vaccine
Feb 21, 2017
Last week, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., of the World Mercury Project, orchestrated a major publicity stunt designed to question the safety of vaccines. Since he had no real evidence to present, and the same accusations which have been repeatedly refuted for years, he attempted to garner attention by offering journalists a glimpse at a new anti-vaccine celebrity and the promise of a $100,000 challenge.
During an hour-long press event on Wednesday, Kennedy was joined by other vaccine critics such as ‘Vaxxed’ movie producer Del BigTree, San Antonio District Attorney Nico LaHood, Tony Muhammed of the Nation of Islam and celebrity actor, filmmaker and father of an autistic child, Robert DeNiro.
While each had their turn to suggest there was a worldwide scientific conspiracy to lie about vaccine safety, Kennedy concluded by announcing that he would give a $100,000 award to any American journalist who could produce a study that proved that the level of thimerosal used in vaccines was deemed to be safe.
(Of course, since he failed to mention the fee required to participate in the challenge, made no reference to a scientific expert(s) who would assist in evaluating the science, and refused to accept the mountains of studies that already exist on the subject, his promise of a payout was seen by many as an elaborate publicity scam.)
On Thursday, Kennedy continued his crusade on Capitol Hill by renting out a Congressional briefing room and attempting to lure legislators with the involvement of celebrity Robert DeNiro. While staunch vaccine refusers were invigorated by these meetings, hanging on the hope that Kennedy could possibly make inroads with the current administration and put an end to vaccine injury once and for all, the reality is that hardly anyone was listening.
With about 40 people in attendance on Wednesday, and not one member of Congress showing up on Thursday, it’s safe to say that Kennedy’s message is only echoing among those who already support him. Even DeNiro appeared to have lost interest since he was notably absent from Thursday’s event on Capitol Hill.
As expected, there have already been dozens of commentary that address Kennedy’s misinformation. However, there is still one statement he made that I feel the need to address.
Kennedy claimed, “I’m not anti-vaccine. I’m pro-safe vaccines.”
It’s understandable for people to say,“Yes, I vaccinate, but I don’t feel completely certain that vaccines are safe.” Since we’re unable to guarantee that vaccines will be 100% safe, this “pro-safe vaccine” battle cry is an effective way to appeal to parents who don’t have the time, the understanding or the inclination to delve into the science that supports the widespread use of vaccines.
By using this “pro-safe vaccine” label, Kennedy and others like him play into the emotional need of parents to protect their children while dangerously misleading them into thinking that vaccines are far more dangerous than the diseases they prevent. In essence, this statement is used to help anti-vaccine crusaders turn vaccine safety into a personal and anecdotal issue, when we should all be demanding that vaccine safety be investigated and addressed with scientific objectivity.
Kennedy continues to try to discredit his critics by questioning, “Why wouldn’t anyone be agreeable to studying vaccine safety?” He seems to suggest that anyone who isn’t “with” him in arguing that vaccines aren’t safe, is simply against safe vaccines.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Vaccine experts ARE agreeable to studying vaccine safety. In fact, that is largely what they do. But unlike Kennedy, they don’t rely on anecdotal evidence. They demand scientific evidence and they go to great lengths to get it.
If we were to go back in history, we would see plenty of examples of how our current vaccine safety protocols have successfully identified problems and taken steps to address them. Consider the history of the rotavirus vaccine. The vaccine was withdrawn in 1999 after scientists associated it with a rare intestinal problem called intussusception. This would not have been identified if it weren’t for the vaccine safety monitoring systems that we currently have in place. And what about the nasal spry flu vaccine which was pulled just prior to this flu season? The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) decided not to recommend the vaccine based on low efficacy studies, especially among children. Again, an example of action taken by one of our current vaccine oversight committees. There are plenty of other examples of vaccines being pulled from the market – the whole cell pertussis vaccine (DTP), Lyme vaccine, and oral polio to name a few. These instances occurred because of the vaccine safety protocols in place.
If we disregard scientific evidence, and instead chose to focus only on poor studies because they supports our beliefs, like Kennedy does, than all we are left with is anecdotal evidence. And wouldn’t you know, that is exactly what Kennedy focused on when he references his “long list of parents” who’ve made personal statements about vaccine injuries.
The truth is that we are already doing a great deal to ensure the safety of vaccines in the U.S. This includes extensive pre-licensure testing and clinical trials, as well as post licensure monitoring through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) and multiple vaccine safety oversight committees. In fact, these processes already incorporate the anecdotal evidence we get from VAERS and attempt to identify potential safety concerns through extensive scientific investigation.
There are plenty of mechanisms in place to identify problems and ensure the safety of vaccines, even if Robert DeNiro is unfamiliar with them and Robert F Kennedy refuses to acknowledge them.
While Kennedy is feeding the public blatant misinformation, peddling conspiracy theories, and generally fear mongering, there is a massive global community of public health professionals, scientists, researchers, healthcare providers, and vaccine recipients, who can honestly say they are “pro-safe vaccines”.
And do we know why they want safe vaccines?
To protect people from serious, and often deadly preventable diseases.
In fact, the majority of people in this world want to prevent diseases so badly that they are willing to take a one in a million risk of a serious adverse reaction.
Now, why would they do that?
Because they realize how dangerous these diseases are and how many lives would be lost if these diseases were to return on a worldwide scale.
Being “pro-safe vaccine” isn’t just about studying vaccine safety. It’s accepting scientific consensus. It’s refusing to waste precious time and money on something that has already been extensively studied. It’s being committed to discovering the answers to the next big questions on vaccine safety.
Kennedy wants you to believe that autism is a result of vaccination because that association has proven effective in making parents question vaccines. However, many people in the autism community would agree that we need to move on from the thimerosal and autism issues and focus instead on the recent research that suggests autism is tied to genetic factors. For instance, just last week, a new study published in Nature determined that autism could be detected via MRI before behavioral symptoms were present. Wouldn’t it be great if Kennedy’s $100,000 challenge could be awarded to someone who made a critical advancement in the study of autism?
Sadly, Kennedy’s rhetoric keeps us stuck in the past. However, our focus should be on moving forward by improving the safety and efficacy of our current vaccines, while also helping to develop new and innovative vaccines such as a universal flu vaccine or vaccines to prevent and fight cancer.
Most reasonable people will dismiss Kennedy’s unsubstantiated claims in favor of the expert options of the worldwide scientific community. But there are always going to be a few who will fall for his persuasive tactics. While we may never be able to stop people from spouting off untruths about vaccine safety, we do have a responsibility to direct vaccine hesitant people to credible evidence based information.
Kennedy’s claims that vaccines are unsafe are inaccurate. He believes a mercury based preservative called thimerosal, is causing autism. He makes this claim despite the fact that autism rates have continued to rise despite the fact that thimerosal has been removed from almost every childhood vaccine administered in the U.S. since 1999. He refuses to acknowledge the compendium of worldwide studies that have failed to show any connection between vaccines and autism, as well as the compendium of studies conducted on the safety of thimerosal in vaccines. He won’t mention the fact that the Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety declared that no additional studies of the safety of thimerosal in vaccines are warranted due to the evidence which strongly supports the safety of the use of thimerosal. And of course, he would never mention the AAP’s endorsement of the World Health Organization’s position on thimerosal. He will simply continue to propagate myths and call himself “pro-safe vaccine”.
But science knows better. It’s time we stop allowing people like Kennedy to drive the agenda. Let’s take what we’ve learned and move on.
If you would like to learn more about vaccine safety, to include the issues of thimerosal and autism, visit these reputable sites:
Vaccinate Your Family’s website:
- MMR Vaccine & Autism Studies
- Thimerosal & Autism Studies
- General Vaccine Safety Studies
- Institute of Medicine (IOM) Reports on Vaccine Safety
With links to:
- Ensuring the Safety of Vaccines in the U.S., by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Safety of Immunization during Pregnancy: A review of the evidence, by the World Health Organization (WHO)
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Center resources:
The History of Vaccines parent resources:
- Misconceptions about Vaccines
- Top 20 Questions about Vaccination
- Vaccine Development, Testing, and Regulation
- Vaccine Side Effects and Adverse Events
- Do Vaccines Cause Autism?
The AAP’s Healthy Children website for parents.
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