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When people misrepresent facts on the record, journalists are in a tough spot — especially when that information can be harmful.

Which brings me to STAT’s recent interview with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., conducted by Helen Branswell. STAT wanted to interview Kennedy about his claim in January 2017 that Donald Trump would soon appoint him to head a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity. Seven months had passed since Kennedy had made the claim and no announcement had been made. STAT wanted to find out where things stood.

Branswell began her interview by asking Kennedy eight different times and in eight different ways where things stood on his commission. Each time, he failed to confirm or deny whether the White House was about to appoint him.


That clearly wasn’t what Kennedy wanted to talk about. Instead, he wanted to talk about his belief that mercury in vaccines is poisoning America’s children and that no one in the federal government seems to care. By insisting that the interview be conducted in the question-and-answer format, Kennedy effectively tied STAT’s hands, which had to print what he said without editorial comment or opposing views.

I feel compelled to oppose Kennedy’s claims.


During the interview, Kennedy said that some babies were being injected with 25 micrograms of ethylmercury, which is part of a preservative called thimerosol that is used in multi-dose vials of influenza vaccine. He claimed that amount to be “100 times” greater than the amount considered to be safe.

As an environmentalist, Kennedy should know that mercury is a natural part of the Earth’s crust. As a consequence, methylmercury (environmental mercury) is contained in water and anything made from water, like breast milk and infant formula. The human body eliminates ethylmercury from vaccines far more efficiently than it eliminates naturally occurring methylmercury.

Babies typically ingest about 360 micrograms of methylmercury during the first 6 months of life, well before they will ever receive their first dose of influenza vaccine. If the 25 micrograms of ethylmercury in vaccines is 100 times greater than what Kennedy claimed is safe, then simply by living on Earth, by 6 months of age babies will have ingested an amount of mercury that is 1,440 times greater than Kennedy’s safety limit.

According to Kennedy’s calculations, all of us are massively intoxicated with mercury. The only way to avoid this would be to move to another planet.

Kennedy also said that he wanted to ensure “that vaccines are subject to the same kind of safety scrutiny and safety testing that other drugs are subject to.” In fact, vaccines are subjected to greater scrutiny than drugs. Much greater. For example, the CDC spends tens of millions of dollars every year on the Vaccine Safety Datalink, a system of linked computerized medical records from several major health maintenance organizations that represents about 7 million Americans, 500,000 of whom are children. Nothing like this exists on the drug side. Frankly, if a Drug Safety Datalink existed, the problem with Vioxx as a cause of heart attacks might have been picked up much sooner.

Kennedy said, “We need to, prior to licensing vaccines, do gold standard safety testing, like every other drug approval requires. We need to do double-blind placebo testing.” Branswell knew that the FDA does require placebo-controlled trials before licensure. So she pushed back. “Sir, that’s done all the time,” she said. “That is done all the time.”

Branswell was right. Here’s an example of the kind of testing that vaccines are put through. One of the currently licensed vaccines against rotavirus was tested in a placebo-controlled, prospective, 11-country, four-year trial of more than 70,000 infants before being approved. That’s fairly typical of most pre-licensure trials. But STAT was stuck having to report Kennedy’s remarks as is, even though Branswell knew they were false. That was the deal. The interview had to be printed without contradiction.

Perhaps most outrageous was Kennedy’s claim that “the hepatitis B vaccines that are currently approved had fewer than five days of safety testing. That means that if the child has a seizure on the sixth day, it’s never seen. If the child dies, it’s never seen.” Safety monitoring for the hepatitis B vaccine, like all vaccines tested before being licensed, involved determining side effects in the vaccinated and unvaccinated group for weeks after each dose. Indeed, some subsets of vaccinated individuals have been monitored for 30 years after hepatitis B vaccination.

Throughout the interview, Kennedy never adequately addressed the new commission. Creating such a commission doesn’t make sense to me for two main reasons.

First, a vaccine safety commission already exists. It’s called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Staffed by epidemiologists, microbiologists, virologists, statisticians, molecular biologists, and clinicians, the CDC supervises the Vaccine Safety Datalink, which I described earlier. Whenever a new vaccine is licensed, this system quickly determines who’s been vaccinated and who hasn’t and detects any side effects that might be occurring more frequently in the vaccinated group.

Second, a commission for scientific integrity also already exists. Independent of the CDC, it’s called the Office for Research Integrity, and is housed in the Department of Health and Human Services.

It’s unfortunate that our culture, and our media, sometimes give celebrities a chance to comment without opposition on subjects about which they are often misinformed. It’s invariably the listener or reader who suffers this advice. Maybe journalists could at the very least add a cigarette-style caution to interviews like the one that STAT did with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Something like “CAUTION: Reading this article might be dangerous to your health.”

Paul A. Offit, M.D., is a professor of pediatrics and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. His most recent book is “Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong” (National Geographic Press, April 2017).

  • A commenter is engaged in Gish gallop, a technique that involves posting many links to try and get those correcting him to give up. In this case, he is trying to prove thimerosal in vaccines causes autism. The commenter is doubly failing.

    A. On its face, he is trying to counter large scale human studies on topic with small
    (Often flawed) studies, animal and cell studies – see:

    B. The passage of time shows him wrong. Thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines years ago. In some states there are cohorts that got no thimerosal. Autism diagnoses rates continue to rise. Time showed the claim false.

    • How many times do we have to tell you that no pediatric vaccines in usa have thimerosal? Why do you keep bringing up thimerosal studies?

      That being said, this study gave a weight adjusted amount of thimerosal to the baby monkeys. We don’t administer vaccines by weight, so that is odd.

    • Kathy, how many times do we have to tell you that the CDC vaccine schedule calls for flu shots for infants starting at 6 months old, with a second dose a month later, then yearly flu shots thereafter. Please see the official CDC immunization schedule for reference.

      THERE ARE ONLY 2 THE PEDIATRIC FLU SHOTS APPROVED FOR UNDER-3-YEAR-OLDS, AND ONE OF THEM COMES IN THIMEROSAL-PRESERVED MULTI-DOSE VIALS. 12.5 mcg of thimerosal with each jab for infants under 2, 25 mcg of thimerosal with each jab for everyone else.

      For those who might have genetic or acquired issues that impair their ability to adequately excrete mercury, the amount of mercury over several years is significant. In fact, any amount not excreted as expected is significant.

      At this point, you can’t pretend you don’t know.

    • kathy, I urge you to take a class in formal logic. To claim that the approved-for-under-3-year-olds thimerosal-preserved flu shots are not given to children simply because other formulations are sold defies all logic.

      As you no doubt know, many offices, clinics, and other outlets offering flu shots to children do not necessarily stock more than one brand.

      Most clinics offering free vaccines offer only the least-expensive option available–the thimerosal-preserved, multi-use vial.

      SOME children are receiving these thimerosal-preserved flu shots. The fact that you continue to deny this is shocking.

    • “sciencemom”

      No, I do not know that this is true “As you no doubt know, many offices, clinics, and other outlets offering flu shots to children do not necessarily stock more than one brand.” In fact, in my state, Washington, vaccines for children are purchased either by the state or the federal vaccines for all children program. All that has ever been offered to my children is single dose flu vaccines, whether we have gone to Walgreens or our family doctor’s office. My experience tells me that family doctors, obstetricians, and pediatricians would only have single-dose flu shots in their stock.

      Now, if you want to employ some logic or some rational thinking, you would find me some evidence to back your claims. And, even if some children get a flu shot containing thimerosal, it has never been proven to cause any harm so i am not concerned. However, I do think that if we had some evidence we would likely find that children are getting the single dose flu shots.

    • @ L Tock: the amount of mercury in a flu shot is indeed significant if the individual receiving it is unable to excrete it all.

      There are a variety of medical conditions and issues known to impair the ability to excrete heavy metals.

      How frightening that one human being would deliberately impose such a risk on another via demanding an invasive intervention.

    • Unable to excrete it at all would indicate the individual lacked a rectum.

      For those individuals who have genuine medical contraindications to vaccines, no one is suggesting they receive one.

      It’s frightening that your ignorance puts children at risk of a vaccine preventable disease.

    • L Tock is ignoring MTHFR genetic mutations, celiac disease, IBS, autoimmune issues, vitamin deficiencies, and glutathione depletion, any ONE of which may effect the ability to properly excrete heavy metals.

      Nobody is listening any more to warnings of risk of “vaccine-preventable disease.” Most people are now aware that many of the vaccine-available diseases are far less dangerous than claimed, and that vaccines are far less effective than claimed, with far more reports of adverse effects than claimed.

      Let’s face it, the industry has completely lost the trust of its market.

      Media relations “friends” of the industry frantically (and sometimes viciously) commenting on articles like this are adding to the distrust.

    • @kathy, who claimed “How many times do we have to tell you that no pediatric vaccines in usa have thimerosal? Why do you keep bringing up thimerosal studies?” and mentioned her own state, Washington.

      Here is proof that in Washington, 236,000 doses of thimerosal-preserved FluZone Quadrivalent PEDIATRIC flu shots were provided for children in the 2015-16 season.

      So kathy says no US pediatric vaccines have thimerosal, but in her own state 236,000 children received thimerosal-preserved flu shots.

  • “Boys vaccinated as neonates had threefold greater odds for autism diagnosis compared to boys never vaccinated or vaccinated after the first month of life. Non-Hispanic white boys were 64% less likely to have autism diagnosis relative to nonwhite boys. Findings suggest that U.S. male neonates vaccinated with the hepatitis B vaccine prior to 1999 (from vaccination record) had a threefold higher risk for parental report of autism diagnosis compared to boys not vaccinated as neonates during that same time period. Nonwhite boys bore a greater risk.”

    • Dr Carey addressed it here

      “What did they do? They looked at data from the National Health Interview Studies, and looked at autism and hepatitis B vaccination. They used surveys from 1997 to 2002, with children aged from 3 to 17.

      Mr. Kirby was kind enough to post an image of the poster to the EOHarm group.

      The autism group had 33 kids total. Of these, 9 of 31 (29%) were given the HepB vaccine. Compare this to 1,258 of 7,455 (17%) of the non-autism group who were given the HepB.

      9 out of 31.

      Are the red flags up yet? They should be.

      Take for example kids aged 17 in the 1997 survey. When were they born? That’s right, 1980.

      When was the Hepatitis B vaccine introduced? 1991. According to Mr. Kirby himself, the HepB vaccine didn’t get fully implemented until about 1996.

      A lot of the kids were born before the “epidemic” of autism. No one disputes that the number of people identified with autism has gone up significantly in the last 30 years.

      So, pretty much anything that changed in that time would “correlate” with autism.

      This is how we get studies that “show” that Cable TV causes autism. And, now, the Hepatitis B vaccine causes autism.”

  • “Major databases (PubMed and Web-of-science) were searched for in vitro and in vivo experimental studies that addressed the effects of low-dose Thimerosal (or ethylmercury) on neural tissues and animal behaviour. Information extracted from studies indicates that: (a) activity of low doses of Thimerosal against isolated human and animal brain cells was found in all studies and is consistent with Hg neurotoxicity; (b) the neurotoxic effect of ethylmercury has not been studied with co-occurring adjuvant-Al in TCVs; (c) animal studies have shown that exposure to Thimerosal-Hg can lead to accumulation of inorganic Hg in brain, and that (d) doses relevant to TCV exposure possess the potential to affect human neuro-development. Thimerosal at concentrations relevant for infants’ exposure (in vaccines) is toxic to cultured human-brain cells and to laboratory animals. The persisting use of TCV (in developing countries) is counterintuitive to global efforts to lower Hg exposure and to ban Hg in medical products; its continued use in TCV requires evaluation of a sufficiently nontoxic level of ethylmercury compatible with repeated exposure (co-occurring with adjuvant-Al) during early life.”

    • A: Cell line studies cannot be extrapolated to in vivo results; as they cannot account for ADME of the compound which would otherwise occur.

      B: No vaccine other than multidose flu shots has thimerosal.

      Flulaval is one of the pediatric influenza vaccines. Multidose vials have thimerosal, but no aluminum adjuvant. Single use syringes lack both.

      Fluzone is the other pediatric influenza vaccine. It has neither thimerosal nor aluminum.

      So I don’t see why there’s a need to study a ‘neurotoxic effect of ethylmercury with co-occurring adjuvant-Al’ when there’s no such vaccine being given to children.

      C: Burbacher’s study is not representative of the vaccine schedule, neither by timing nor dose.

      D: Again, a cell line study is not evidence of harm in vivo, as there is no ADME of the compound. The use of thimerosal in developing nations is critical to ensure no contamination of the vaccine vial occurs.

    • @L Tock The synergistic effect between aluminum and mercury has not been studied in individuals receiving both aluminum-adjuvanted vaccines simultaneously with thimerosal-preserved vaccines.

      6-month-old infants given thimerosal-preserved flu shots at the same time they’re given aluminum-adjuvanted Prevnar and Hept B vaccines may face serious risks if they have genetic or acquired issues that impair their abilities to properly excrete heavy metals.

    • Given that you have the option to have the flu shot administered by itself, and neither of the pediatric flu shots have both thimerosal and an aluminum adjuvant, there is no need for further study.

      Given that both aluminum adjuvants and thimerosal were used together for decades prior, well before any autism ‘explosion’, the data do not indicate there is a synergistic effect.

  • “Thimerosal, an organomercury compound, has been widely used as a preservative. Therefore, concerns have been raised about its neurotoxicity. We recently demonstrated perturbation of early serotonergic development by prenatal exposure to thimerosal (Ida-Eto et al. (2011) [11]). Here, we investigated whether prenatal thimerosal exposure causes persistent impairment after birth. Analysis on postnatal day 50 showed significant increase in hippocampal serotonin following thimerosal administration on embryonic day 9. Furthermore, not only serotonin, striatal dopamine was significantly increased. These results indicate that embryonic exposure to thimerosal produces lasting impairment of brain monoaminergic system, and thus every effort should be made to avoid the use of thimerosal.”

    • Do you have studies that looked at people and vaccines?

      This is called gosh gallop. The commenter is posting study after study hoping that those correcting him so far will give up or fall behind.

      The strange thing is that he is doing it to try and show thimerosal causes autism, when the fact that removal of thimerosal from most pediatric vaccines – all, in some states – did not lead to reduction in autism.time had clearly disprove that claim.

    An adverse effect of neonatal TCV exposure was observed for the psychomotor development index (PDI) only in the 12th and 24th months of life (β=-6.44, p<0.001 and β=-5.89, p<0.001). No significant effect of neonatal TCV exposure was found in the 36th month. The overall deficit in the PDI attributable to neonatal TCV exposure measured over the course of the three-year follow-up (GEE) was significantly higher in TCV group (β=-4.42, p=0.001). MDI scores did not show the adverse association with neonatal TCV exposure."

  • “The combined (MeHg+EtHg) exposure showed significant differences for MDI but not for PDI; however, there was a significant decrease in both MDI and PDI scores at 24 months. The increase in BSID delays (scores EtHg). Neurodevelopment delays due to low-doses of organic mercury (albeit undiscernible) are not predictable but can be avoided by choosing low-Hg fish and providing Thimerosal-free vaccines.”

  • ” Observational population studies have revealed uncertainties related to neurological effects. However, consistently, they showed a link of EtHg with risk of certain neurodevelopment disorders, such as tic disorder, while clearly revealing the benefits of removing Thimerosal from children’s vaccines (associated with immunological reactions) in developed countries. So far, only rich countries have benefited from withdrawing the risk of exposing young children to EtHg. Regarding Thimerosal administered to the very young, we have sufficient studies that characterize a state of uncertainty: the collective evidence strongly suggests that Thimerosal exposure is associated with adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes.”

    • Conclusion “Neurodevelopment delays due to low-doses of organic mercury (albeit undiscernible) are not predictable but can be avoided by choosing low-Hg fish and providing Thimerosal-free vaccines.”

      Pediatric vaccines in USA don’t have thimerosal. And best not to eat a lot of fish during pregnancy.

    • Wrong, Kathy, about half of the pediatric flu shots approved for under-3-year-olds–the most susceptible population–come in a multi-use vial preserved with thimerosal. Since flu shots ARE on the CDC immunization schedule (you can look it up yourself, or look upthread where I already posted it), you can see for yourself that babies getting their first flu shot at 6 months, and their second a month later, as recommended, are getting a full 25 mcg of thimerosal.

      If, for any of a myriad of reasons, they have trouble excreting it, as some do, they are grave risk for neurological damage.

      So you should be campaigning for pre-screening for susceptibilities to such damage, and campaigning for the rights of parents to say no to any invasive procedure that would be putting their susceptible children at risk for such damage.

    • How fascinating that an antivaxer is using the moniker “sciencemom” here when there has been a well-known provaxer commenting with that moniker for many years.

      Anyway, I am well aware of which flu vaccines still have thimerosal but those are not given to children. Therefore, no pediatric vaccines have thimerosal. This gish gallop of Josh’s is silly.

      We already prescreen infants for a number of genetic disorders. Since harm from vaccines is incredibly rare, there is no way to add anything to that screen which could determine who might suffer anaphylaxis to a vaccine or actual encephalitis (not the fake kind you all talk about where babies cry a lot).

  • “Selected vaccine authorities from CDC, FDA, and manufacturers discuss, in a closed meeting, the possibility of neurodevelopment disorders resulting from vaccine components.

    Emphasis and comments in square brackets added by K.P. Stoller, M.D.

    [The CDC published a study in late 2003, repudiating any possible link between thimerosal and developmental problems such as autism, but the CDC did have data supporting such a link which it secretively kept from the public.

    Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act detail the transcript of a meeting held in June of 2000 between members of the CDC, the FDA, and representatives from the vaccine industry.

    This top secret meeting was held to discuss a study done by Dr. Thomas Verstraeten and his co-workers using Vaccine Safety Datalink data as a project collaboration between the CDC’s National Immunization Program (NIP) and four HMOs. The study examined the records of 110,000 children.

    The transcript is titled “Scientific Review of Vaccine Safety Datalink Information,” June 7-8, 2000”

    • The fact that a reporter wrote an anti vaccine book that events disproved (he predicted removal of thimerosal would decrease autism and was flat out wrong) and got an award by people who didn’t understand science enough to catch his misrepresentation before events showed how wrong he was is an interesting bit of trivia, but how is it relevant now?

    • DR writes: “anti vaccine book”

      Dr. Offit writes if the science is arrayed against one’s argument, attack the messenger. DR demonstrates this technique again by attacking a book as “anti vaccine” instead of deconstructing the hypothesis described therein.

    • It’s a little ironic for someone who opened his participation with repeated and untrue personal attacks against Dr. Offit to use that quote.

      The book is anti vaccine because the source material was anti vaccine activists, and the author was and is openly sympathetic to them, especially the organization Safemind and it’s members.

      The book reflected that, and was openly sympathetic to those groups.

      You don’t think people should know that?

      Of course, as I pointed out, the book was also disproved by time.

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