Brandy Zadrozny: This is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Brandy Zadrozny. We're still over six months away from the start of the presidential primaries. If Kennedy stays in the race till then, he'll have plenty of opportunity to peddle his anti-vaccine BS on the media mainstage. To assess the potential future danger of Kennedy's rhetoric and the damage already done, I spoke to Paul Offit, a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases, vaccines, immunology, and virology, and the co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine. First, I asked him about his personal history with Kennedy.
Paul Offit: Almost 20 years ago, he called me on the phone. He said that there were a number of women who had come into his office and were concerned about vaccines and vaccine safety. He was trying to find a way to reassure them, could I help him? We had a conversation for about maybe an hour that I thought went really well. I thought I answered his questions and felt good about the whole thing.
Brandy Zadrozny: The way Kennedy tells it, those concerned mothers told him their kids had been harmed by the mercury in vaccines, specifically a mercury-based preservative thimerosal. The short answer as to why that has no basis in fact is that methyl mercury found in contaminated fish is different from the ethyl mercury in thimerosal, which is easily cleared from the human body so less likely to cause harm according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was removed from most vaccines out of an abundance of caution in 2001. Nevertheless, Kennedy blamed the phony scientists, federal bureaucrats, and the pharmaceutical industry laying out his claims in a 4,700-word article published in Rolling Stone and Salon.com. The piece was debunked by researchers and journalists and ultimately retracted.
Paul Offit: It was just a complete hit piece on vaccines, it was a hit piece on me.
Brandy Zadrozny: I asked Offit just how influential he thinks Kennedy's anti-vax rhetoric has been.
Paul Offit: I think it's quite influential. He has the Kennedy name, arguably the greatest Democratic family in the history of this country, and people see that name and they trust it. When people have a famous name many of them use that platform to do good. He has used that platform to do the opposite. He's done a lot of harm. He's travelled to Samoa to say that deaths were caused by the MMR vaccine when that wasn't true at all. There were two children who received an MMR, measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine that then died. The question was why.
An investigation showed that instead of diluting the vaccines with the right diluent, what those nurses inadvertently did was they diluted it with a muscle relaxant, so the children stop breathing and died. He seized upon that as a way of saying, look here, MMR vaccine causes fatalities. As a consequence, there was a dramatic reduction in the immunization rates for measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine in Samoa.
Reporter: Massive deadly measles outbreak. The virus has infected more than 4,800 people. At least 70 of them have died including many young children.
Paul Offit: Died because they thought that the MMR vaccine had killed those two children when that wasn't true. There's now been 18 studies done in 7 different countries on 3 different continents looking at hundreds of thousands of children who either did or didn't get the MMR vaccine, making sure you controlled for other variables like health care seeking behavior or medical background or social economic background. You found that you were at no greater risk of getting autism if you got that vaccine or if you didn't. There's two ways you can interpret those 18 studies. One, you could say MMR vaccine doesn't cause autism which is the reasonable interpretation, or you could take his interpretation which is there is a vast international conspiracy among hundreds of researchers across this world to hide the truth.
Brandy Zadrozny: I've spoken with Kennedy now and I think what's really interesting is that anything you hand back to him anything that you can possibly say can still be covered or can still be explained with, "Well, those researchers are in the pockets of big pharma. You can't trust those researchers." I don't know who you're supposed to trust besides Kennedy and a few of his cohorts which don't seem very trustworthy at all.
Paul Offit: It really severely undermines the integrity and passion and devotion of many people in the scientific and medical community to do what they do. I can speak for myself. Why did I choose to go into pediatrics? I have a love for children, and I guess at some level passions are very dotted and very rooted in the scars of our childhood. As a five-year-old I was in a polio ward for about six weeks. I didn't have polio. I had a failed operation on my right foot, but I remember polio. I remember those iron lungs. I remember the so-called Sister Kenny treatments, those hot pack treatments that they would put on with their arms and legs to try and restore muscles and children screaming.
That's my image of that event. It was literally hell on earth. I think when I see those children and it's in the same way that I saw myself as vulnerable and helpless and alone, I mean, that's what drives me. For all his money, for all his education, what has he done to advance the health of people or the well-being of people in this country? He has done the opposite and nonetheless he attacks me or attacks well-meaning researchers and clinicians. It's shameful.
Brandy Zadrozny: The mainstream media has learned our lesson, I think, from the early acts where we were platforming RFK Jr. all the time and Jenny McCarthy and all of these other prominent anti-vaxxers. We learned our lesson and said we should not do that, but yet the proliferation of all of these alternative media outlets seems to have provided a way for the anti-vaccine movement to grow and to experience continued growth.
Paul Offit: The anti-vaccine movement I would argue was born with the first vaccine which was Edward Jenner's smallpox vaccine which was basically cowpox which prevented a genetically similar human smallpox. If you look just a few years after that vaccine came out which was the late 1700s, there was a picture done by James Gillray in 1804 where you see a disinterested Edward Jenner vaccinating someone who's clearly fearful. She's fearful because as she looks around her you see that people are developing snouts and tails and little cows are growing out of their butts. That was the fear. The fear was that somehow this cowpox would turn you into a cow.
With that came the anti-vaccine league and other anti-vaccine movement so the notion of injecting somebody with a biological that induces fear is not new. You're right. I think that this sort of limped along. For the most part I think the media was responsible, I think generally the public was responsible. There was an event in the early 1980s. There was a film that was made by NBC called DPT: Vaccine Roulette. It was about an hour-long program and it showed a series of parents all of whom said the same thing, "Look, my child got this whooping cough, this pertussis vaccine and now look."
Parent: We had a child up to four months of age that was developing beautifully well. After, a group of doctors conferred and indicated that it was indeed the DPT shots that injured Scott. I went home and cried. Jim cried. We couldn't believe that we could possibly have such a black future.
Paul Offit: You would see children with withered arms and legs drooling, with bicycle helmets on staring up in the sky so clearly developmentally delayed with seizures or attention deficit disorder and other developmental problems. It was a riveting show. It was wrong but nonetheless it was a riveting show. Later there was a researcher named Sam Berkovic in Australia that did study showing that if you actually looked at those children they had something called Dravet Syndrome which is a sodium channel transport defect that you're born with so the vaccine didn't cause it. Nonetheless, it gave birth to the notion that the whole pertussis or whooping cough vaccine could cause harm and with that there was enormous litigation.
Parent: This is for sure. The whooping cough or pertussis vaccine is the most unstable, least reliable vaccine we give our children.
Paul Offit: You went from basically 27 vaccine makers in 1955 to 18 vaccine makers in 1980 before this piece came out in 1982 to basically 4 vaccine makers today. Vaccine makers abandoned the industry because of a flood of litigation. That was the birth ultimately of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act to some extent to try and protect vaccine makers through the vaccine injury compensation program. That was really the main push of then. Then in the late 1990s, 1998 when Andrew Wakefield published his paper claiming that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine cause autism which was really just a case series of eight children who got a vaccine then developed autism which is in no sense a proof. He was very charismatic, very well spoken.
Andrew Wakefield: There is sufficient anxiety in my own mind that it would be sensible to divide them into separate doses. That is give them individually as measles vaccine, mumps vaccine and rubella vaccine until this issue has been resolved.
Paul Offit: Immunization rates in England plummeted and there were hundreds of hospitalizations and thousands of cases and four deaths arguably caused by that paper.
Brandy Zadrozny: In this BBC documentary journalist Brian Deer explains how he debunked Andrew Wakefield's claims.
Brian Deer: It turned out that he'd been hired two years before that paper was published by a firm of lawyers expressly to make these allegations. In fact, more recently I've discovered where he admits that the lawyers actually asked him to write it. The paper itself was funded and his research was funded by a British government fund set up to cover litigation for parents who didn't have enough money to sue themselves.
Brandy Zadrozny: Let's go back to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. He's not a real contender right now, but thought experiment, what are the dangers of a candidate like him being elected?
Paul Offit: Right, you could actually go back to Trump's election. When Trump was elected he, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., met with Trump because Kennedy, Jr. was interested in heading a group something like the Center for Scientific Integrity and Vaccine Safety. He wanted to head that group. That was dangerous. If were that true, I think that vaccines and the perception of vaccines would have taken a major hit. Fortunately, that never happened. Were he to become president I am sure he would do everything he could to basically dismantle the expertise in the Food and Drug Administration, dismantle the expertise in the CDC and as well as state or local health agencies because those groups are telling him things he doesn't want to hear.
Brandy Zadrozny: What does that look like when he dismantles these organizations?
Paul Offit: Then we could go back to where we were where diphtheria was the most common killer of teenagers caused by essentially strangulation as that thick membrane formed at the back of your throat or polio which caused upwards of 50,000 cases of paralysis a year and 1,500 deaths or whooping cough would kill 8,000 children a year or measles would caused hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and up to 500 or more deaths per year. Then we would go back to start to approach those numbers and once again then we would realize the importance of vaccines. That may be what it takes. I think vaccines largely have been a victim of their own success.
I think people don't realize what vaccines have done and maybe the only way to get people to realize it is to see these diseases come back. I hope that's not true. I was fortunate enough to know a man named Maurice Hilleman who I think in many ways was the father of modern vaccines. He did the primary research or development on 9 of the 14 vaccines that we give to infants. He passed away in 2005 but in his dying days I was able to interview him, and I asked him that question because that's when you were starting to see pushback with the MMR causes autism story, you were starting to see measles cases again.
I said to him, "Is there any way we can educate people away from this so that children don't have to suffer in order for us to realize how important vaccines are?" He spent a long time answering that question. He looked out of the windows behind him over this wintry landscape in suburban Philadelphia and then he looked back to me and he said, "No. I think that's what it's going to take." Here this man who devoted his life to trying to prevent children from suffering and be hospitalized and being permanently harmed and dying realize that in many ways his enormous amount of work was essentially really hurt by just the inability of people to understand what vaccines can and can't do. I think it's invariably the children who suffer our ignorance, the most vulnerable among us.
Brandy Zadrozny: Paul Offit is the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine. Thanks so much, Paul.
Paul Offit: Thank you, Brandy.
Brandy Zadrozny: That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang, and Suzanne Gaber with help from Shaan Merchant. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Josh Hahn. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I'm Brandy Zadrozny. Till next time.