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).
After more than 800 comments over three days, the conversation about this article seems to have run its course. Thank you all for a (mostly) civil discourse. Comments on this article are now closed.
Editor, First Opinion
DR: “It seems you have decided it’s an appropriate forum to try and argue – not very well – all vaccines are bad.”
Except that I personally believe that vaccines are an important element in the public health arsenal, along with antibiotics.
I have not made a single statement ever that “vaccines are bad.”
Dr. Offit writes that if the law and science are arrayed against one, attack the messenger. That has been proven countless times by the zealously pro vaccine avatars on this thread.
Dr. Offit writes that if one does not have the facts or the law in favor of one’s argument, attack the messenger.
RT: “To say you’ve become unhinged & obsessed with this comment thread is an understatement.”
This time, I agree with your use. While your comment was mistaken, this kind of personal attack helps no one and does not advance the discussion.
The right thing to do is point out how your comment was mistaken. Easy enough to do.
Josh meet park outside away from computer. Park outside away from computer meet Josh.
You two have fun!
Serious question Josh. You do seem very obsessed with having the top and/or last comment on this thread. Is there a particular reason for this?
DR: “Doctors who decide to vaccinate and protect them consider that, and balance the risks.”
Wrong. Vaccine mandates such as California SB277 contradicts the statement “doctors who decide to vaccinate and protect them consider that, and balance the risks.”
As Dr. Robert Sears if he can “decide to vaccinate” and “balance the risks.”
This comment is doubly mistaken.
A. The context for my comments was vaccinating babies in NICU. There is no problem to wait on vaccinating babies in NICU under SB277. It is unlikely to affect their ability to attend daycare.
B. Yes, doctors do need to balance risks of vaccinating with risks of not. In the rare cases where vaccinating is more dangerous, a doctor is supposed to give a medical exemption under SB277.
Of course, Dr. Sears doesn’t actually do that. He appears to be willing to give medical exemptions even when they’re not medically indicated. That is a breach of his duty to his patients, and likely of his professional responsibility as a physician.
Evidence of harm from vaccines, courtesy the notoriously anti vaxxer Journal of the American Medical Association:
This study found an increase in adverse events after the routine
immunization of ELBW infants in the NICU, specifically
sepsis evaluations, need for increased respiratory support, and
intubation. The incidence of these adverse events decreased
sharply just before the first immunization day. Younger gestational
age (23-24 weeks) was associated with a higher risk of
sepsis evaluation and intubation after immunization”
I guess some slick used car type salesperson could convince a naive parent that a little intubation on a preemie is good first thing in the morning- clear the sinuses and settles the bowels, or something like that.
What’s the spin on this one? We need a vaccine to prevent the other vaccines from increasing the need for sepsis evaluation, respiratory suppot, and intubation? Is that the preferred sales pitch? Or is it more of a collateral damage angle- the kids get intubated to protects the herd?
Disgusting that anyone would defend this sickening practice- it’s like medieval leeching or bloodletting.
Oh- but our friends from the AAP have a good reason we should be doing this- just like they have a good reason our kids should be drinking Coke.
Notice that these were not longterm harms. They were things requiring evaluations, and reasons to keep an eye and consider when and how to give these kids vaccines. They are not reasons not to protect these babies from diseases. To remind you, the vaccines provide minimal challenge to young immune systems. Diseases provide major ones. What do you think pertussis, hib, pneumococcal would do to these babies? Doctors who decide to vaccinate and protect them consider that, and balance the risks. That’s why they support vaccinating.
I”m sorry you feel protecting babies from diseases is sickening.
Josh, the fact that you need to change goalposts, subjects & dodge/deflect from each rebuttal to your propaganda posts is telling.
To say you’ve become unhinged & obsessed with this comment thread is an understatement.
A walk in the park will do you good. There’s still plenty of the day left!
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