President-elect Donald Trump met Tuesday with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to discuss “vaccines and immunizations,” and after the meeting Kennedy announced that Trump had selected him to lead a commission looking into “vaccine safety.”
Robert F Kennedy JR says Trump asked him to chair a commission on vaccine safety and he agreed. Has lobbied for vaccine exemptions.— Ginger Gibson (@GingerGibson) January 10, 2017
Kennedy has a long history of dishonesty on this topic so it should perhaps not be too surprising that the Trump transition team is pushing back on the idea that he was formally picked for a commission:
Trump pushes back on RFK statement pic.twitter.com/FTpzGUn9d6— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) January 10, 2017
But the fact that Trump is consulting Kennedy on the issue at all should worry just about anyone who believes in science, public health, and dispelling myths about vaccines.
Kennedy is, of course, the son of the late US attorney general, senator, and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. He has spent much of his career working on environmental protection and in particular river conservation through the groups Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper. But in recent decades he’s become better known for his firm stance denying established science on vaccines and arguing, against an overwhelming medical and scientific consensus to the contrary, that a preservative formerly used in children’s vaccines causes autism.
In 2005, he published an article titled "Deadly Immunity," in both Rolling Stone and Salon, alleging that the mercury-based chemical thimerosal, which was once but is no longer used as a preservative in children's vaccines, causes mercury poisoning and in turn autism. There is no evidence to support this view. The consensus position of the medical community is that thimerosal does not cause mercury poisoning in children, and in any case the symptoms for mercury poisoning and autism are radically different. A comprehensive review by a committee of the Institute of Medicine in 2004, the year before Kennedy's article, concluded that “the body of epidemiological evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.”
Worse than that, Kennedy’s article alleged a vast conspiracy. For Kennedy's claims to be true, as science writer Seth Mnookin explained in his excellent book The Panic Virus, "scientists and officials in governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations, and publicly held companies around the world would need to be part of a coordinated multi-decade scheme to prop up 'the vaccine industry's bottom line' by masking the dangers of thimerosal." It was patent nonsense, and Salon subsequently retracted Kennedy’s article, after first adding five damning corrections that undermined its entire premise.
But Kennedy has maintained his belief in the thimerosal-autism conspiracy theory. In 2015, he promoted the conspiracist film Trace Amounts, and told audiences, "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.” He spoke approvingly of the defeat of a pro-vaccine measure in Oregon, which would have made it harder for parents to deny their children lifesaving immunizations and thereby undermine both their children’s and their communities’ health.
So it’s a safe bet that Trump’s meeting with Kennedy will involve the latter repeating this kind of nonsense. Trump himself has expressed support for autism/vaccine conspiracy theories, saying at a September 2015 presidential debate, “You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump — I mean, it looks just like it is meant for a horse, not for a child, and we had so many instances, people that work for me, just the other day, 2 years old, beautiful child went to have the vaccine and came back and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”
But Trump says a lot of factually inaccurate stuff while campaigning. What’s concerning about the choice to meet with Kennedy is that it suggests this is not just a passing interest for the president-elect, but a matter upon which he intends on following up, and which could craft policy.
That’s concerning, not just because it indicates a presidency willing to reject scientific consensus but because the idea implicit in these conspiracy theories — that getting autism is somehow worse than suffering from measles or mumps or rubella — is bigoted and insulting to people (like me) who are on the autism spectrum and live happy, fulfilled lives. As the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network put it when Trump made his anti-vaxxer remarks, “Vaccinations do not cause autism — but the use of autism as a means of scaring parents from safeguarding their children from life-threatening illness demonstrates the depths of prejudice and fear that still surrounds our disability.”
Trump has already proposed an agenda that’s frightening to disabled Americans, not least because of his calls to repeal the Affordable Care Act and block-grant Medicaid, the latter of which is the leading provider of services for disabled people. Meeting with Kennedy suggests this agenda will extend into autism policy.