As Vermont lawmakers mull over the elimination of the state’s philosophical exemption for vaccines, a member of an American political dynasty is making a case for keeping them in place, arguing that the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) has become a complicit partner in the spread of lethal substances.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., son of the former U.S. senator, attorney general, and presidential candidate, told state lawmakers that while he supports vaccination policies, some of the vaccines contain thimerosal, a mercury-based compound that could harm children.
However, those assertions — particularly the 1998 paper that said a vaccine-autism link exsisted — have been debunked. The CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Institute of Medicine, say that no evidence supports the view of some that Thimerosal causes autism and other brain disorders. In the 1990s, the Food and Drug Administration recommended its removal from vaccines given to infants as a precautionary measure despite the release of a report that dispelled any notion that the substance was harmful.
Vaccines have been effective in the near-eradication of many infectious diseases — including smallpox, polio, hepatitis A, tetanus, and varicella. Last month, a group of public health organizations announced that rubella had been eliminated from the Americas after 15 years. This happened due to the availability of the shot that protects against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR).
During his testimony before the Vermont House Health Care Committee, Kennedy derided the CDC’s oversight process and said the agency has acted as a puppet of pharmaceutical companies, buckling under the pressure of highly influential pharmaceutical companies.
“You could design an epidemiological study that shows that cigarettes don’t cause cancer or sex didn’t cause pregnancy,” Kennedy said. “You just get rid of all the pregnant people or you get rid of all the people who have cancer and then you present your study,” he said. “That’s what CDC has been doing with these nine epidemiological studies that they point to.”
“I’m pro-vaccine. I’ve had all six of my kids vaccinated,” he added. “I think we ought to have state and federal policies that maximize vaccine coverage of the population. But I think we have to begin the process by making sure the vaccines are safe, efficacious and that the regulatory agency which recommends vaccines … and monitors them has integrity and credibility, and, unfortunately, that is not the case at the moment.”
With 36 states considering vaccine-related bills, a dozen of which include elimination of philosophical exemptions, Kennedy has expressed plans to tour across the country on his crusade to spread what he considers the truth about vaccines and the pharmaceutical industry’s stranglehold on public policy.
In March, Kennedy helped philosophical exemption supporters secure a victory in Oregon with the defeat of a bill that would have eliminated childhood vaccination exemptions in the state. That month, he met with lawmakers and hosted a screening of “Trace Amounts,” a film that ties thimerosal to autism. Grassroots pressure coming from what has been known as the Health Freedom Movement ultimately discouraged legislators from supporting S.B. 442, even with the support of the Oregon Health Policy Board.
Since then, Kennedy has made stops in California and New Jersey, eager to the combat the growing sentiment against anti-vaccine legislation. He counts among a number of public figures who have spoken out against vaccines including Jenny McCarthy, Rob Schneider, Donald Trump, and Billy Corgan of alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins — all of whom believe that vaccines cause autism.
Despite their platform, anti-vaxxers don’t represent the sentiment of most Americans. A poll conducted by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital earlier this year showed that more than 80 percent of parents believed that all children in daycare should be up to date on vaccines. Anti-vaxxers faced scrutiny after a measles outbreak among people who visited Disneyland earlier this year affected nearly 200 people over the course of three months. A study later confirmed that those who were infected had vaccination rates well below the recommended threshold, putting thousands of people at risk with just one sneeze.
Beyond the issue of vaccines, Kennedy raises points that have been discussed in the public health sphere. A dearth of federal funding for research agencies has allowed outside entities to influence scientific research so that it benefits pharmaceutical companies.
Kennedy alluded to this relationship in his comments before the Vermont legislature, saying that it’s probable that it could be the case with vaccines. “When I was a kid the vaccines were not profitable,” he said. “They were not profit centers for the company. They were almost a civic duty. But now vaccines can add revenue of a billion dollars a year for some of these companies and there is tremendous pressure to add these vaccines to the schedule.”
For example, the Open Payments online database showed that pharmaceutical companies awarded $3.5 billion to doctors within a three-month period during 2013 for speaking engagement, consulting fees, and stake ownership. That deal required physicians to recommend certain products to patients. Reports have also shown that pharmaceutical companies have ghostwritten studies extolling their products, even when the medication in question poses serious health risks, as seen in the case of drug company Pfizer that designated hormone replacement therapy as a viable solution for breast cancer and post-menopausal heart disease — a claim that has been debunked.
It doesn’t stop with medicine. Sugar industry titans, too, have joined forces with U.S. public health officials to bury evidence that high sugar consumption causes cavities and tooth decay in the 1950s. Decades later, more than two billion people across the world suffer from a form of tooth decay, compelling the World Health Organization to rail against sugar companies. Even the tobacco industry has wielded its lobbying powers to influence science and public policy, working with the Institute of Medicine to create scientific and regulatory recommendations that favor the industry.