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Editorial: Down the rabbit hole: Kennedy portrays extreme views of vaccine opponents

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Posted on May 7, 2015 |
By Angelo Lynn



Robert Kennedy Jr. continued his nationwide anti-vaccine tour with a stopover in Vermont this Tuesday, spreading his campaign of misinformation and misguided claims that the Centers for Disease Control was corrupt and in the hip pocket of “big pharma.” A Vermont-based anti-vaccine group sponsored Kennedy’s visit to Montpelier, paying for his flight and expenses in a last-minute effort to dissuade the Legislature from cutting out the philosophical exemption that currently allows parents to avoid school-mandated vaccinations when children enter kindergarten.

The Senate passed legislation earlier this session repealing the philosophical exemption in the wake of a measles outbreak last year that spread to 19 states and infected more than 150 people. That outbreak highlighted the declining immunization rates in some states, with Vermont ranking several percentage points below the national average and in some districts as low as 60 percent. Typically, health care professionals like to see a 92 to 94 percent participation rate. At that level “herd immunity” becomes effective, meaning that students in the classroom are far less likely to contract the disease if a high percentage of the students have been immunized.

The Senate passed the measure because a majority agreed the philosophical exemption needlessly exposes school children to serious childhood diseases, including diphtheria, MMR, tetanus, polio, hepatitis B, chickenpox, measles, mumps and rubella. Parents can claim a philosophical exemption simply by stating they’re opposed to vaccinations for any number of reasons. Medical and religious exemptions remain in place. While the numbers aren’t huge, the Vermont Department of Health reports that parents have used exemptions to exclude 6.1 percent of all students in the state, with 90 percent of those being philosophical exemptions.

Interestingly, no one argues the positive aspects of vaccinating children. And history has proved that the greater the participation rates, the more likely the disease is to be stopped or eradicated. The world stopped smallpox (the last case was diagnosed in 1977) through childhood immunization programs. Polio has also largely been eradicated.

Even Kennedy says he has vaccinated all six of his children and believes in school-mandated vaccination, but then he slips in a sly disclaimer, saying that before philosophical exemptions are cut steps should be taken to make vaccines safer. Ah, there’s the catch, as if current vaccines aren’t safe. With that twist of logic, he casts himself on the side of making life safer for children by portraying vaccines and the pharmaceutical industry as the villains.

Problem is, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest our nation’s vaccines are unsafe.

Kennedy tries to tie thimerosal — an ethylmercury-based preservative that was removed from the vast majority of childhood vaccines in 2001 — to brain disorders, including autism. Not only has that connection been debunked, but the ingredient hasn’t been used in vaccines for 14 years (and during that time, autism rates have risen, not declined, further proving the link was never there.)

So, what’s Kennedy’s beef today with the safety of the vaccines administered to schoolchildren? According to Keith Kloor, a reporter who wrote an extensive piece on Kennedy’s anti-vaccine “obsession” for the Washington Post last summer, Kennedy’s “shameless hyperbole” and misguided beliefs have led many to believe “he’s gone down a deep rabbit hole.”

These days, Kennedy’s arguments fan the flames of suspicion about big business — from corporate greed to possible corruption — without any proof, chastises the national media for being “compromised” by its reliance on advertising from pharmaceutical companies (even though state media like ours in Vermont gets next to no money from pharmaceutical companies), and champions mothers who stand up against vaccinations — even though in doing so, they put their children at risk as well as compromise the safety of every other child in the school.

Kloor cites a passage of a Kennedy speech made this past March in California, during which he claimed: “They (students) get the shot, that night they have a fever of 103, they go to sleep and three months later, their brain is gone,” according to a report in the Sacramento Bee. “This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.”

Kennedy later apologized for comparing school vaccinations to a holocaust, but the extremism suggests how far out there Kennedy is on the subject.

He also mixes his messages. He sometimes will downplay the safety of vaccines and drive the focus to corruption, including that of the CDC, exclaiming to the Bee: “The CDC is a cesspool of corruption. The CDC is cataclysmically conflicted. It is no longer focused on human health. It is focused on money.”

To those suspect of big government and of big industry, that may be a compelling spiel, but there is no basis for Kennedy’s allegations. The Senate rightly recognized the fallacies of such arguments and passed a common-sense bill that will make Vermont’s children safer.

The House Health Care Committee that is reviewing the bill this week should hold true to solid scientific evidence and do what’s right for the vast majority of Vermont school students and their parents: they should dismiss the misguided ranting of those in opposition and pass the Senate’s bill to eliminate the philosophical exemption. To do anything less would be an affront to the state’s intelligence and pro-public health policy.

— Angelo S. Lynn

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