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.

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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.

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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).

  • Kathy wrote “Back to the science! Got any? That isn’t shoddy and doesn’t involve mice?”

    You are completely disingenuous in your expression. Please stop wasting everyone’s time. Here, for the second time, are the studies you dismiss without even reading. What a gift, as a self-identified non-scientist, you have!

    Each of these co-authors would be rightfully offended at having their work dismissed. Please move on to another topic. You are outed as one-sided, non-objective, and biased. Again.

    • Schultz ST, Klonoff-Cohen HS, Wingard DL, Akshoomoff NA, Macera CA, Ji M. 2008 Acetaminophen (paracetamol) use, measles-mumps-rubella vaccination, and autistic disorder: the results of a parent survey. Autism. 12(3):293-307. doi: 10.1177/1362361307089518.
    • Bauer AZ, Kriebel D. Prenatal and perinatal analgesic exposure and autism: an ecological link. Environ Health. 12:41. doi: 10.1186/1476-069X-12-41.
    • Claudia B. Avella-Garcia, Jordi Julvez, Joan Fortuny, Cristina Rebordosa, Raquel García-Esteban, Isolina Riaño Galán, Adonina Tardónf, Clara L. 2016. Rodríguez-Bernal, Carmen Iñiguez, Ainara Andiarena, Loreto Santa-Marina, Jordi Sunyer. Acetaminophen Use in Pregnancy and Neurodevelopment: Attention Function and Autism Spectrum Symptoms. International Journal of Epidemiology DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyv
    In 2010, Shoffner et al., (2010) found that 71% of kids with regressive autism had an episode of fever > 101°F In 33% of these cases, the fever occurred right after vaccination – and none showed regression unless fever had occurred:
    • Shoffner J, Hyams L, Langley GN, Cossette S, Mylacraine L, Dale J, Ollis L, Kuoch S, Bennett K, Aliberti A, Hyland K. 2010. Fever plus mitochondrial disease could be risk factors for autistic regression. J Child Neurol. 25(4):429-34. doi: 10.1177/0883073809342128.

    • Actually, this list demonstrates exactly Kathy’s point. The author is trying to prove acetaminophen use after MMR causes autism. So he provides two studies that focus on acetaminophen in pregnancy, when MMR is not used – studies that are completely off-topic and don’t support his use (at least one with its own problems). He provides a tiny (28 patients) study with no controls that talks about fever, and does not mention acetaminophen. And he provides another small online parent survey on it.

      In other words, he doesn’t support the claim at all. These studies don’t show MMR causes autism. Certainly they don’t counter the large scale studies on the topic.

  • Kathy wrote: “There is no evidence to show that MMR causes autism”

    This is well after I posted seven studies showing that MMR + Tylenol is a problem, four leading to autism after MMR + Tylenol, one showing that a high percentage of kids who regressed into autism after MMR had a high fever, and two that showed that Tylenol use during pregnancy led to an increased risk of autism or autism-like symptoms.

    Again, here’s what Kathy posted after receiving the information about those studies, including full references:

    “There is no evidence to show that MMR causes autism.”

    This is vaccine risk denialism at its best. Kathy, I sent you a copy of my book, it cites 1,000 studies. I want it back, please. You are wasting everyone’s time. Science and medicine need to move forward. Please step aside and allow responsible adults to carry on and pick up the pieces of the mess left by CDC.

    • As I explained above, your studies don’t show MMR+ tylenol is a problem. You provided a small parental survey on topic, another small study about fever under vaccination, with no reference to tylenol (we do have other fever reducers), and studies that were not related.

      To support a claim, studies need to be both on point and valid. These were not. And it’s certainly not a counter to the many studies that found no link.

      I am in the middle of your book (it’s hard going because it’s also pretty badly written). You use studies out of context, or against their findings, and have no hesitation using extremely bad studies (and ignoring valid ones). Some of the claims are extremely wrong – like the claim that there was no autism in some families in previous generations, which completely ignores diagnostic changes (which would lead to previous generations not being diagnosed with ASD even if they had it under today’s criteria).

      There is a reason scientists who actually want to break new grounds use peer review. That way there is at least some quality control over the claims. Anyone can say anything, however ill founded, in a book.

  • Perhaps if Dr Offit took more interest in all research he would be aware of the fact that there IS actually a program for monitoring safety information relating to human medical products, the FDA Safety Information and Adverse Event Reporting Program created in 1993. (https://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/).
    There IS a difference between ingested and injected derivatives of mercury, with the bioavailability of ingested varying between 10-100%, whereas that of injectable is 100%, The FDA also states on their website – “FDA does not allow mercury in drugs or in cosmetics, except under very specific conditions where there are no other safe and effective preservatives available”. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5334723/
    As to using inert placebos, a stipulation of World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki states in section 33 that a placebo may only be used if no proven intervention exists, in other words where there is an already existing vaccine, it is practice to use the existing version as placebo, as using a true placebo would be seen as “unethical.” https://www.wma.net/policies-post/wma-declaration-of-helsinki-ethical-principles-for-medical-research-involving-human-subjects/
    Regarding the hepatitis B vaccine, the reactogenicity (refers to the property of a vaccine of being able to produce common, “expected” adverse reactions, especially excessive immunological responses and associated signs and symptoms) was monitored for four days, and further adverse events were noted for 30 days. https://www.fda.gov/downloads/BiologicsBloodVaccines/Vaccines/ApprovedProducts/UCM244522.pdf
    Lastly, mention of the Office for Research Integrity was perhaps not the best idea. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/03/top-us-scientific-misconduct-official-quits-frustration-bureaucracy
    https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-15-114.html

    • A. Medwatch is a passive reporting system. It’s equivalent to VAERS, but it’s not equivalent to VSD, so it does not provide the same active monitoring. Dr. Offit was right that vaccines are better monitored than drugs.

      B. Yes, there is a difference between ingested and injected mercury. Here it doesn’t apply, because the amounts are so small in the vaccine and ethyl mercury clears so much faster than methyl mercury. The point stands. See also: https://vaxplanations.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/239/

    • Your four-day follow up claim refers to only one of the trials in your document – there are others – and is based on a misunderstanding: the close following was four days after each dose, and the doses covered six months.

      And as Dr. Offit mentioned, there are many other studies.

      I agree I would not have focused on the ORI, but Dr. Offit’s general point, that there is heavy monitoring of vaccines, is accurate. Multiple committees oversee safety.

      https://shotofprevention.com/2017/01/11/multiple-vaccine-oversight-committees-ensure-our-public-safety/

  • Nobody is defending big pharma. Our vaccine science doesn’t depend on pharmaceutical companies alone. It comes from all around the world, from governments, universities, etc’. As much as anyone would like to dismiss it, doing so requires an unrealistic global conspiracy.

    We speak up for protecting children from disease, pointing to the science supporting it. Someone needs to speak up for children when anti-vaccine activists work against protecting them.

  • @thereal_truther misrepresents.

    I find the term “antivaxxer” to be offensive. It’s a slur used to intimidate open discussion on vaccine risk. I block individuals who use the term on Twitter because by using the term, people self-identify themselves as bigots.

    Re: fundraising, it is my duty and responsibility to fundraise for the not-for-profit at which I am CEO. @thereal_truther wants less science, while other laud the Cherry Picking conducted by the CDC as science

    Once again, if someone leaves studies uncited, and ignores them, and I bring them forward, I’m not cherry picking. They are. I’m bringing forward the rest of the literature.

    In this light, @thereal_truther is revealed as a vaccine risk denialist, and a science denier.

    These denialists are the same one who tried to perpetuate the myth that autism is “genetic”. After reading 1,000 studies on autism, including studies that address vaccines and the role of other sources and types of toxins, they have been proven wrong, and the media now more accurately reports on autism as an environmental condition.

    RE: the neurodiverisy slam, ask the 5,000 parents of kids with autism that follow me what I think about their kids.

    • Nobody can speak to your sensitivities. But when someone systematically understates the benefits of vaccines, overstates their risks and attributes to them risks they don’t have, and uses conspiracy theories to dismiss science, it’s fair to characterize them as anti-vaccine. Looking at your writings shows you not only do that, but all your writings are attacks on vaccines.

      That makes you anti-vaccine.

      Taking bad studies, or studies off topic (like oral ingestion of aluminum, or other studies not related to aluminum) and using them to claim vaccines have risks is problematic. It’s not denial to reject that data. It’s the right thing.

    • This is a glorious moment to see James “Chery Pickin” Weiler unravel so much into a cesspool of jealousy, hate & immature attacks & rants. If this isn’t the end of his “career” as a purveyor of hate & dangerous misinformation designed to harm & kill children…i don’t know what is!

      You find the term antivaxxer to be offensive. Well guess what…so does most of the free world! We find you extremely offensive. A spade is a spade my friend and you either accept who you are & embrace it (like Alex Jones) or you cowardly attempt to defend yourself as someone who isn’t against vaccines even as your entire new career is 100% that. If you need me to show you evidence of this, please ask.

      You block people on Twitter who bring #truth. Your ridiculous “excuse” for doing so only makes you look worse…and cowardly. If you were more brave & strong you would allow all views into your twitter discussion instead of censoring those that don’t conform to your brand of hate.

      You are an admitted bigot. Nobody denies that (well, maybe you do.) By demonizing autistics like you do on a daily basis, you harm and hurt thousands. I don’t care that the PARENTS that are brainwashed by you who follow you on Twitter don’t realize you’re a bigot. Ask those with autism what they think about your brand of hate. Ask those who aren’t brainwashed. Even so, 5,000 is a very low number. I bet if you asked the millions affected by autism who don’t follow you then you’d see the real answer of how harmful your brand of bigotry is.

      “It’s your duty” to beg for money to do #antivax research and provide biased studies that will always show what you want them to show? Really?

      You ONLY cherry pick. In fact after spending an entire year bashing the CDC and saying they can’t be trusted with ANY study you are now declaring their latest study on the flu vaccine to be valid and trustworthy. Why? Ummm…let’s all take a mother funkin’ wild guess! BECAUSE IT CONFIRMS YOUR BIAS YOU ANTVAX NUTJOB.

      There is no such thing as a “vaccine risk denialist” btw. It’s so cute how you try to use it in every comment thinking you are bringing this term into the world. It ain’t working my friend and it’s just sad how desperate you have become.

      None of the studies in your book prove vaccines cause autism.

      Here’s 16,524 actual peer-reviewed scientific studies that show vaccines are safe. James wants the world to believe all of these studies are flawed & fraudulent but his studies are unbiased & the real truth.

      Instead today James is exposed as “The Real Fraud.”

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/?term=vaccine+safety

      #micdrop

    • Leaving aside his claims and the glaring lack of evidence to back them up, it is ironic that James Lyons-Weiler takes offense at being accurately described as anti-vaccine and calls this “bigotry”, when he has displayed such blatant disdain for autistic people who are trying to advocate for themselves.

      Example: he makes fun of them in this tweet: “I was feeling rather ‘Neurotypical’ today, when suddenly, after my flu shot, I felt ‘NeuroAtypical'” https://twitter.com/lifebiomedguru/status/737799404258754560

      He also, frankly, seems to have an issue with women. When writing about a girl he alleges (but fails to prove) died from a vaccine reaction, he can only imagine her worth in terms of her attractiveness, her potential to marry and her ability reproduce. “Meet one of the prettiest young ladies that could have graced this Earth as a woman, a mom.” https://jameslyonsweiler.com/2017/04/29/in-the-name-of-rose-the-very-shallow-scientifically-unsound-one-sided-rhetoric-on-vaccine-safety-must-end/

      The sad fact that some parents fail to value their children as the people that they are – and that they are easily persuaded to leave them unprotected from disease – does not put you in a better light, James.

  • Paul lied below — Also there should be a follow up of this claim… Hep B was rolled out after about 7 days of study. Where is the report on the 30 years or the long term study of hep b….

    “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.

  • Doris said “Paul Offit is a vaccine expert?” Who made him one? Was Fritz ter Meer a vaccine expert? Is he a good expert? Does he have an agenda? When one evaluates someones expertise; especially in such a private area as vaccinations, one must not only weigh the product but the motive. The gross villainous behavior of Dr. Paul Offit proves he lacks ethics and morality (something I require of all my experts); as he did not recuse himself from a panel voting on his own Rotavirus vaccines addition to the childhood schedule. His love of money, power and controlling mothers is proof of his Megalomania. The women who bow down to him are most likely in a self hate relationship. Unfortunately, for Kathy, Dorit, Paul & Pan they are the ones working with and often for and strangely defending Corporations who continuously engage in Criminal and Civil fraud. Pharmaceutical companies must have their immunity from legal suit stripped now . These Medical MAFIA runners had the Patriot Act, in the 11th hour, throw them a legal liability immunity clause bone . When lawyers are allowed to sue in an open court of law, every single vaccine will be off the market in a span of 2 weeks time (the moronic Rotavirus vaccine included). While Pharmaceutical companies need my Governments immunity to function there is NO argument to be made by Dorit or Kathy or anyone else. I am completely unvaccinated; I travel the world ; I will never be vaccinated; I am not afraid of germs. I had my childhood illness and I am your herd, the real herd. The vaccine Science is very very very undone. We need long term true double blind placebos of every single vaccine and then the vaccine combined with other vaccines. We also need to stop feeding our children corrupted seeds “GMOs” — (since Kathy seems concerned with the fat babies of the world) . My advice to all mothers is this. If you are going to vaccinate do so after the age of 5. When a child is walking and talking it is much easier to prove vaccine damage in a Vaccine Injury Court of Law. Until the Science is done, and by done I am referring to the COMPLETELY UNVACCINATED against the vaccinated for overall health. I have at least 300 friends who are completely unvaccinated and their children are unvaccinated they can be easily studied. Scientism doesn’t want to study them. Scientism is a very very very deadly religion. It feels nothing and it has no soul. I don’t worship at that temple. Robert Kennedy doesn’t need to distort anything; the science is actually undone.

    • So much truth in all these comments. My child was injured at age 5 from the dtap. I know Dr O will never be the one to care for those who he injures by lying about data. He has been confronted by several professionals and he chooses to ignore them and parents of injured children. He is sick and I am ashamed that anyone would give him a platform to spew.

    • Dr. Offit is a vaccine expert because he has written many scientific articles on the topic, researched it for years, teaches it, and is one of the authors of the professional textbook. Hard to get more expert.

      I’m sorry you see speaking up for children and science, as Dr. Offit does, as “villainous.” Most people likely don’t.

      On the rest, Dr. Offit did not vote to add the rotavirus vaccine to the schedule. He was not on the committee then. After it was added, he did vote to add it to the Vaccines For Children, a program that funds vaccines for poor children.

      Personal attacks based on false information is not a reason not to vaccinate and not to protect children from disease. It is a reason to approach anything the attacker says with caution.

    • There are tens of thousands of studies showing vaccines are safe. On the other hand are small, bad mouse studies and parents who believe, against the evidence, that vaccines cause things evidence shows they don’t, like autism and SIDS.

      Rejecting the science and not protecting children because of anti-vaccine claims that are so ill supported is unfair to the children left at risk.

    • A. Note that the commenter is unable to point to any lies Dr. offit is supposed to have said. Nor can she or he rebut any of the points Dr. Offit made.

      B. Dr. Offit did not vote to add rotavirus to the schedule. https://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/debunking-myths-dr-paul-offit/

      C. I’m sorry to hear your children are vaccine-deprived. I’m glad they’re surrounded by children protected by their parents, since that might help protect them from the preventable diseases they were not protected from.
      There is no vaccine against strep, so that outbreak is not relevant to the issue, though I’m glad your children were lucky and did not get sick. I hope, again, their luck holds, in spite of their lack of protection.

      D. I’ve met doctor who know ingredients. But I’m not sure why you think the measure of doctors knowing vaccines is memorizing a list of ingredients, rather than understanding the risks and benefits of vaccines and being familiar with that literature. memorizing a list isn’t enough for a doctor to be able to advise you, nor it is an indication of anything except whether the doctor is familiar with anti-vaccine arguments (not the science on vaccines).

  • Offit and Reiss are Jewish and don’t they know about the Nuremberg Code? You cannot do medical treatment without informed consent. Otherwise, it is wrong.

    • It’s unclear how you think the Nuremberg Code is connected to this article providing correction to anti vaccine misinformation.

      At any rate, vaccines are not experimental.

    • Why is there a thread of racism in antivaxers? I don’t get it. Is it part of attacking the messenger instead of discussing the science? I mean, do you all think before you post at all?

      Nothing about immunization science violates Nuremberg code. You get informed consent because you can say no to any vaccine and because all participants in vaccine studies are volunteers.

    • Why do #antivaxxers have such an infatuation with WW2 & the Holocaust? It’s ironic since many deny the holocaust (while claiming vaccines saving lives are a NEW holocaust.)

      It’s exhausting to keep up with their brand of bigotry & hate.

    • The real trader of truth– Word spinning is nice, but the Nuremberg Code of ethics wasn’t for Jews or anyone in the Tribe it was for the World entire. It was for humans to not be experiments by the bow down lifeless religion of Scientism. Fundamental Scientism is the bigot and its bias is to force everyone to comply to the humans in white coats or the odds Gods. Imagine the extent of misogyny in an MD who would shoot a pregnant women with influenza or the sheer eugenics of shooting a pregnant woman with Tdap , as the CDC recommends. Both have never been studied for fetal outcome. Both have never been studied for carcinogenic effect. I would venture to say those demanding others take their vaccines lean more to atheism or agnosticism or their God is their belly or they worship at the violent temple of Scientism.

    • stephania…learn your history. The Nazis were focused on Jews. It’s sad you don’t recognize how hurtful it is to use the Holocaust for your own vile agenda that exploits families for profit & fame while endangering their children. I feel sorry for you.

      https://books.google.com/books?id=4P04DuPIfAYC&pg=PA23&lpg=PA23&dq=nuremberg+code+jews&source=bl&ots=x9LRXeke8x&sig=y_xkk8LlWVGYTAV6X5op32OfEYc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiFtvC4wrvWAhXny4MKHVoLAKEQ6AEIbzAO#v=onepage&q=nuremberg%20code%20jews&f=false

  • I noticed that Dr. Offit failed to provide any evidence that injecting mercury into our infants is safe. Wouldn’t that be the best evidence? I also note that Offit failed to provide any reference to support his claims. I need evidence, not opinion or propaganda.

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