Robert F Kennedy Jr is an ‘outlier in the Kennedy family’ with his anti-vaxx support, according to his siblings. Now the family is engaged in a very public spat, says Bette Browne
The unity of America’s Kennedy dynasty, forged by tragedy and triumph, has been severed in a public dispute over an anti-vaccination crusade by a member of the clan. In the eye of the storm is Robert F Kennedy, son of the assassinated US senator Robert Kennedy and nephew of the slain president John F Kennedy.
His aunt, Jean Kennedy Smith, is a former ambassador to Ireland. Robert F Kennedy, who is now 65 and was aged nine when his uncle was assassinated in 1963 and 14 when his father was killed in 1968, has been a prominent figure in the US anti-vaccination campaign for some years but it was only recently, amid alarm at the worst outbreak of measles in the country since 1994, that the family decided to issue their public condemnation.
“We love Bobby,” said Kathleen Kennedy, Joseph P Kennedy, and Maeve Kennedy McKean in a statement about their brother and uncle, Robert. “However, on vaccines he is wrong.”
They pulled no punches. “Robert F Kennedy Jr — Joe and Kathleen’s brother and Maeve’s uncle — is part of this campaign to attack the institutions committed to reducing the tragedy of preventable infectious diseases.
“He has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines.”
Citing the history of their family as advocates of public health and immunisation campaigns in America and globally, they declared: “On this issue, Bobby is an outlier in the Kennedy family.”
They contrasted Robert’s stance with the work of the late President Kennedy.
“In 1961, President John F Kennedy urged the 80m Americans, including almost 5m children, who had not been vaccinated for polio to receive the Salk vaccine, which he called ‘this miraculous drug’.
“In the same year, he signed an executive order creating the US Agency for International Development, which has spent billions of dollars over the past decades in support of vaccine campaigns in developing countries.”
Robert Kennedy, who chairs the Children’s Health Defence, an organisation that is sceptical about the benefits of vaccines, said: “I am not anti-vaccine. I want safe vaccines with robust safety testing.
“I love my family. The Kennedys have a long and continuing history of involvement with the public health agencies. It is very difficult for any of us to accept that any of those officials would be less than candid about vaccine risks.”
While denouncing his stance on vaccines, the family praised his work on the environment, calling him “one of the great champions of the environment” whose work “has positively affected the lives of countless Americans [and] we stand behind him in his ongoing fight to protect our environment”.
The seeds of his opposition to vaccines may have been planted during his environmental work and his advocacy against multinational organisations, which he charges have polluted US waterways and endangered the health of Americans.
His crusading work on the environment, which mushroomed into campaigns against what he saw as unjust profiteering by some pharmaceutical companies, started almost by chance soon after a period of community service work that was part of a sentence for heroin possession.
He was arrested on the heroin charge in 1983, when he was 29 and had earlier graduated from Harvard. He entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to two years’ probation and 1,500 hours of community service.
He joined the Riverkeeper environmental organisation to satisfy the community service sentence. Then, after completing the mandated 1,500 hours, the group hired him as its chief prosecuting attorney.
He went on to prosecute a number of cases against alleged polluters of New York’s Hudson River. Since 1987, he has served as a clinical professor of environmental law and co-director of the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic at the Pace University School of Law, a private university in New York. Earlier in his career, he was assistant district attorney in New York County.
Kennedy was named one of Time.com’s ‘Heroes for the Planet’ for his success in helping Riverkeeper to restore the Hudson River.
In 2005, he said there was a link between global warming and Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,833 people either directly or in subsequent flooding when it tore across a number of southern US states, especially the Mississippi city of New Orleans.
But when he set his sights on pharmaceutical companies and veered into the anti-vaccination campaign, his views alarmed many Americans, concerned that someone with Kennedy family credentials was giving additional oxygen to the campaign.
And now outbreaks of measles across America have sparked growing concerns among parents and the medical profession. The US recorded 971 cases of measles in the first five months of 2019, surpassing the total for any year since 1992, which was before the disease was declared eradicated in the country.
The US declared measles eradicated from the country in 2000, but officials with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a warning last week that the country risks losing its measles elimination status. There were a total of 2,126 US cases of measles in 1992, the CDC said.
The disease has spread mostly among school-age children whose parents declined to get them vaccinated. US public health officials blame the resurgence on the spread of misinformation about vaccines. A vocal fringe of parents oppose vaccines, believing, contrary to scientific studies, that ingredients in them can cause autism.
“Measles is preventable and the way to end this outbreak is to ensure that all children and adults who can get vaccinated, do get vaccinated,” CDC director Robert Redfield said last week.
“Again, I want to reassure parents that vaccines are safe. They do not cause autism.”
All US states require most parents to vaccinate their children against a number of diseases, including measles, mumps, rubella, and whooping cough, to be able to attend school. Such laws often apply to children in private schools and day care facilities as well as public schools.
At the same time, 18 states permit some exemptions that allow families to opt out of school vaccination requirements for personal or philosophical reasons.
The climbing rate of measles has resulted in challenges to such exemptions. At least eight states, including some that have experienced measles outbreaks this year, want to remove personal exemptions for the measles vaccine. Some states would remove the exemption for all vaccines.
Bills to restrict exemptions are now pending in a number of states, but so far only three states — Mississippi, West Virginia, and California — prohibit nearly all vaccine exemptions, including the one exempting families who say their religious beliefs conflict with vaccination.
The scientific evidence, however, is that serious side effects of these vaccinations are rare and that the benefits far outweigh the risks. The World Health Organization has listed the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate among the top 10 threats to global health in 2019. It is in the context of this increasingly heated debate that the Kennedy family has spoken out against Robert’s stance.
“Those who delay or refuse vaccinations, or encourage others to do so, put themselves and others, especially children, at risk. It is in all our interests to make sure that immunisations reach every child on the globe through safe, effective and affordable vaccines. To do otherwise risks even further erosion of one of public health’s greatest achievements.”
A study in 2018 on the state of the anti-vaccine movement in the US showed that, over the previous nine years, the number of people claiming vaccine exemptions for “philosophical belief” had gone up in 12 of the 18 states allowing such exemptions.
And now, even with a growing number of measles outbreaks across the US, at least 20 states have proposed anti-vaccination bills, according to the American Academy of Paediatrics. Apart from objections on religious or philosophical grounds, those on the anti-vaccination side cite a distrust of government and pharmaceutical companies. Some have looked to president Donald Trump for support.
From 2012 to 2014, Trump posted a number of tweets against vaccines and after his election was reportedly interested in appointing Kennedy to a commission on “vaccination safety and scientific integrity”.
But subsequently the idea was quietly abandoned and last month, in response to the measles outbreaks, the president advised parents to vaccinate their children.