The environmentalist and anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. met with Donald Trump this morning, followed by early reports that Trump had appointed Kennedy to chair a presidential commission on vaccine safety, according to USA Today and other outlets. Later in the afternoon, however, Trump Transition team statements appeared to contradict what Kennedy had reported. The role Kennedy will play, if any, during Trump’s administration remains somewhat vague based on Trump’s transition team’s response.
“The President-elect enjoyed his discussion with Robert Kennedy Jr. on a range of issues and appreciates his thoughts and ideas,” Hope Hicks, a Presidential Transition spokeswoman emailed me. “The President-elect is exploring the possibility of forming a commission on Autism, which affects so many families; however no decisions have been made at this time. The President-elect looks forward to continuing the discussion about all aspects of Autism with many groups and individuals.” [ETA 7:39pm EST]
As my colleague Emily Willingham writes, “it should surprise no one that Trump and Kennedy found each other.” Both Kennedy and Trump have questioned vaccine safety suggested that autism, a development disability affecting an estimated 1 in 68 children, according to the CDC, is linked to vaccines despite nearly two decades of research showing the two are unrelated. Kennedy has long threatened public health with his anti-science views and authored a 2014 book, Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak, in which he argued that the preservative thimerosal in some vaccines causes harm, another falsehood long debunked by scientific evidence. As Seth Mnookin remarked on Twitter, “Appointing RFK Jr. to head vaccine safety panel is like appointing David Duke to head panel on race relations.”
As BuzzFeed reports Kennedy said, “President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it.” Fortunately, science has plenty of answers. Here are five scientifically proven facts what Donald Trump and the American people need to know about vaccines.
1. Vaccines do not cause autism.
It’s a bit astounding that this falsehood has persisted as long as it has given how long the studies disproving it have been out. Despite those who have been suckered into this myth, few concerns in vaccine safety have been as carefully, extensively studied as this one. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) provides a thorough list of 30 studies, with links and summaries, investigating autism and either the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine or vaccines generally. Their list also includes 12 studies looking at thimerosal and the non-link to autism.
Most of these are case control studies, comparing two groups of children’s exposures and outcomes. They range in size from a couple hundred children to several thousand to hundreds of thousands. Many compare children who received all recommended vaccines to those who received no vaccines or fewer vaccines than the first group. Some specifically compare children who received the MMR vaccines to those who did not receive the MMR vaccine. All found the same result: no link between autism and vaccines. To learn more facts on autism, read Emily Willingham’s excellent piece here.
2. Thimerosal in vaccines does not cause harm.
Thimerosal is an organic compound that breaks down into 49% ethylmercury and is used as a preservative in multi-dose flu vaccines to ensure no bacterial or fungal contamination is introduced between administering doses. Thimerosal is not “pure mercury,” is not classified as a neurotoxin and differs from the methylmercury present in certain fish. Methylmercury is an established neurotoxin that accumulates in the body and can cause harm when too much is consumed. Ethylmercury exits the body within a week or two and does not cause harm. This 2004 review of thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism spectrum disorders concluded, “Studies do not demonstrate a link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and ASD, and the pharmacokinetics of ethylmercury make such an association less likely.”
That is, the ethylmercury molecule itself cannot mechanically cause autism or any other developmental problem. Even children who received multiple flu vaccines with thimerosal — though you can request the vaccine without thimerosal — show no safety concerns. As this 2013 study concluded, “Our pharmacokinetic analysis supports the acknowledged safety of thimerosal when used as a preservative at current levels in certain multidose infant vaccines in the United States.” (As I noted previously, when a local pharmacy did not have any preservative-free vaccines while I was pregnant demanded they give me one a shot with thimerosal because protection against flu for myself and my baby was better than no protection at all.
3. Thimerosal is not present in any CDC-recommended childhood vaccinations aside from some flu vaccines.
Any concerns about thimerosal in vaccines today is outdated anyway: no childhood vaccines on the CDC’s recommended immunization schedule besides the flu vaccine contain thimerosal. Following an FDA review of mercury products in pharmaceuticals and other biological products in 1997, it was determined that insufficient evidence existed at the time to demonstrate the safety of thimerosal. Therefore in 1999, out of an abundance of caution, the AAP and CDC recommended removing thimerosal from all childhood vaccines. Today, no U.S. childhood vaccines contain thimerosal, though thimerosal-containing vaccines continue to be used elsewhere in the world.
4. No other vaccine ingredients pose serious health risks.
The ingredients in vaccines are tested to ensure their safety and necessity. It is always possible that the gelatin or another substance in vaccines could cause an anaphylactic reaction in someone who did not know they had an allergy. This is a theoretical risk in approximately 1 of one million doses. Beyond this, the standard ingredients in vaccines have been repeatedly shown to be safe and necessary. Aluminum is present in some vaccine to enhance the immune response, but it is present in amounts far lower than the usual environmental exposure children receive. Formaldehyde is used to inactivate viruses and bacteria in vaccine production to ensure the pathogens cannot harm the vaccine recipient, so vaccines contain trace amounts less than seen in fruit and vegetables we eat. For those concerned that formaldehyde is “injected” instead of “ingested,” know that human blood already contains about 2,600 mcg of formaldehyde per liter because the body produces it to make amino acids and conduct other functions.
You can read in-depth discussions of ingredients, such as aluminum, formaldehyde, antibiotics, egg products, thimerosal, and others at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Vaccine Safety Education website.
5. The CDC-recommended vaccination schedule is safe and effective.
In 2013, the Institute of Medicine’s issue a comprehensive report that reviewed all available evidence and established without question that the current CDC recommendations for childhood vaccines are the safest, most effective way to protect children from infectious disease. Even delaying or spreading out vaccines is riskier than following the CDC schedule.
Kennedy tried to claim he was pro-vaccine in his statement: “Everybody ought to be able to be assured that the vaccines that we have—he’s very pro-vaccine, as am I— but they’re as safe as they possibly can be.” But no one who is “pro-vaccine” would reject the extensive science showing vaccine safety today. Kennedy is anti-vaccine, and everyone, including the President-Elect, should be assured that the science solidly backs the safety of vaccines.
I have reached out to the Trump Administration Transition Team and am attempting to reach out to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. for comment and will update this post if I receive a response.