January 20, 2019
Robert Kennedy Jr. in Urbana, IL
Be Well

Why A Vaccine Skeptic Shouldn't Head a Vaccine Safety Panel

by Amanda Z. Naprawa  

In what may prove to have very serious consequences for our public health, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a well-known vaccine skeptic, reported this week that he has been asked by president-elect Donald Trump to chair a new “vaccine safety” commission.

If this turns out to be true, Kennedy is an alarming choice because he has long asserted that vaccines cause autism, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. In addition, Kennedy has expressed skepticism about the safety of the current CDC recommended vaccine schedule, even though the schedule is evidence-based and safe. Kennedy and his unsubstantiated beliefs have found a receptive ear in Trump, who has echoed many of these anti-vaccine sentiments.

It is deeply concerning that the president-elect is giving this level of credence to anti-vaccine myths. As president, Trump will be making important appointments to the CDC, FDA, and the Department of Health and Human Services. These agencies have a significant impact on setting vaccine recommendations and regulations. The people in charge of these agencies must make evidence-based, scientific decisions and not bend to unsubstantiated myths and conspiracy theories.

The importance of vaccination as a public health achievement cannot be overstated. According to the CDC, among children born in the last 20 years, vaccinations will prevent more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths. Smallpox—which once disfigured thousands of people and killed millions—no longer exists in the wild because of vaccination. Vaccination campaigns eradiated polio from the United States and since 1979, not one case of polio has originated in this country. The polio vaccine has prevented countless Americans from acquiring this crippling and potentially fatal disease.

There are more recent success stories as well. Research is showing that the HPV vaccine—which can prevent transmission of strains of the virus that causes cervical, oral, and certain other cancers—is more effective than anticipated. In one study conducted in New Mexico, the incidence of abnormal cell growth in young girls that can eventually lead to cervical cancer dropped significantly after vaccination was introduced.

Not only are vaccines incredibly effective, they are also very safe. In order for a vaccine to come to market and be given to a healthy individual, it must go through rigorous safety testing.Even after a vaccine is in use, we continue to monitor its safety and side effects. If and when there is evidence that a vaccine has a potentially serious side effect, it is immediately withdrawn and not recommended until further investigation. And while some people may assume that any problem that happens to occur after vaccination is caused by the vaccine, studies have shown that only 3 percent of reported vaccine injuries were actually causally related to the vaccine. (These included allergic reactions and local site reactions.)

Vaccines also do not cause autism. Kennedy and Trump may believe to the contrary, but there is zero—I repeat, zero—evidence that vaccines cause autism. In June 2016, researchers published ameta-analysis of 10 studies, involving over 1.2 million children, which concluded that there was no relationship between vaccines and autism. Despite this overwhelming evidence, Trump and Kennedy have continued to make unfounded assertions to the contrary. This may turn out to be incredibly dangerous.

Anti-vaccine sentiment and the continued promulgation of anti-vaccine myths is a clear and present danger to the public health. Vaccine refusal has led to the re-emergence of measles (which had been declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000) and pertussis (whooping cough) in the U.S.Both of these diseases are potentially fatal. And when even a small percentage of a community cease vaccinating, it puts everyone else at risk for that disease because it decreases “herd immunity.” Also known as community immunity, herd immunity exists only when enough individuals in a population are vaccinated to reduce the chance of spreading disease to those who aren’t vaccinated—because they’re immunocompromised, for example. The recommended vaccine schedule aims not just to protect the individual but to ensure that we maintain herd immunity.

Which brings me to another anti-vaccine belief. The “too many, too soon” argument is also totally invalid. The timing and spacing of vaccines in the current CDC-recommended schedule are based on science, and are recommended to ensure the maximum efficacy of the vaccines. (For instance, the recommendation that the HPV vaccine be given to children ages 11 to 12 is not random, but based on studies showing that this is themost effective time to vaccinate against this infection.) There is once again no evidence that our current vaccine schedule is dangerous. On the contrary, it saves lives.

Donald Trump is playing a very dangerous game. His apparent anti-science, anti-evidence policies are poised to have a serious impact on the nation’s health and beyond. It is imperative that public health advocates and doctors continue to push evidence-based policies that will protect us all.

Also see Not Sure Vaccines Work? Read This.