Since 2005, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., once a well-respected environmental activist, has become better known as a vaccine “skeptic,” making a series of increasingly lurid and unfounded claims about the supposed health risks of vaccines. Despite that, he’s insisted that he’s not anti-vaccine, but instead ”pro-safety and pro-science,” as he put it in one recent self-published editorial. On Monday, he stretched that claim to its breaking point, when he published an Instagram post explicitly supporting Andrew Wakefield, the ex-gastroenterologist whose false claims about the MMR vaccine and autism sparked the modern anti-vaccine movement.
Kennedy and Wakefield have been fellow travelers for quite some time. Both appeared earlier this year at the Autism One conference, a longtime hub for anti-vaccine claims and self-styled experts on autism and other disorders they claim may be caused by immunizations. It’s a natural home for Wakefield: He lost his medical license in the United Kingdom in 2010, the same year the medical journal the Lancet retracted a 1998 study on which he’d been the lead author, a study which suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Britain’s General Medical Council found that he’d acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in conducting the studies on the 12 children described in the paper. In the years that followed, he moved to the United States and remade himself as an anti-vaccine celebrity.
But Kennedy’s path has been a bit different: Before his involvement with vaccines took over most of his public career, he was a prominent environmental activist whose work with organizations like the Waterkeeper Alliance was widely celebrated. That all began to change in 2005, when he published a story in Rolling Stone and on Salon.com claiming that thimerosal, a preservative used in some pediatric vaccines until 2001, was linked to a variety of childhood illnesses, including autism. (There is absolutely no evidence that thimerosal causes autism.)
Earlier this year, three of Kennedy’s relatives wrote him an open letter in Politico, calling him “tragically wrong” about vaccines. He responded on the website of Children’s Health Defense, once called World Mercury Project, the purported public health organization he created and whose board he’s the chairman of. There, he continued to insist that his real beef is with the corruption of Big Pharma, writing, “What we need is science, not censorship. I am not anti-vax. I am pro-safety and pro-science. I want robust, transparent safety studies and independent regulators.” (Vaccines have been robustly and repeatedly tested both in the United States and elsewhere.)
In his Instagram post, Kennedy chose to align himself with Wakefield, calling him “among the most unjustly vilified figures of modern history” and suggesting that he had been the target of “a global smear campaign orchestrated by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire,” intent on taking him down. That was a reference to Brian Deer, the investigative journalist who exposed Wakefield’s fraudulent study in the British Medical Journal, which is not owned by Rupert Murdoch. (Disclosure: Murdoch’s son James sits on Vice Media Group's board and reportedly purchased a small stake in the company. Neither I nor my editors have ever met him and he had no oversight of or involvement whatsoever in this piece.)
Kennedy also suggested that it was simply sexist to discredit Wakefield and, by extension, some of his fans, calling it “misogynistic dogma that a charismatic medical Svengali mesmerized thousands of hysterical mothers into falsely believing that vaccines caused their children’s autism.” As David Gorski, a surgeon and the editor of Science-Based Medicine, points out, Kennedy has employed a version of this tactic since at least 2007, when he accused the people responding to one anti-vaccine activist of being “patronizing” to her. (It’s indeed true that women have historically been discounted by the medical establishment, accused of being irrational or hysterical; that doesn’t mean they are correct when they claim vaccines caused their children’s autism or that unfounded treatments will “cure” those same children.)
Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about why he chose this week for a full-throated defense of Wakefield, but it’s certainly an interesting new alliance in the anti-vaccine movement. As a further reminder of how strange the world can be, Kennedy closed out his robust slideshow of Wakefield with a photo of the two of them and Elle McPherson, the very famous supermodel with whom Wakefield is reportedly now in a relationship. Truth is, as ever, far, far weirder than fiction.
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