When people misrepresent facts on the record, journalists are in a tough spot — especially when that information can be harmful.
Which brings me to STAT’s recent interview with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., conducted by Helen Branswell. STAT wanted to interview Kennedy about his claim in January 2017 that Donald Trump would soon appoint him to head a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity. Seven months had passed since Kennedy had made the claim and no announcement had been made. STAT wanted to find out where things stood.
Branswell began her interview by asking Kennedy eight different times and in eight different ways where things stood on his commission. Each time, he failed to confirm or deny whether the White House was about to appoint him.
That clearly wasn’t what Kennedy wanted to talk about. Instead, he wanted to talk about his belief that mercury in vaccines is poisoning America’s children and that no one in the federal government seems to care. By insisting that the interview be conducted in the question-and-answer format, Kennedy effectively tied STAT’s hands, which had to print what he said without editorial comment or opposing views.
I feel compelled to oppose Kennedy’s claims.
During the interview, Kennedy said that some babies were being injected with 25 micrograms of ethylmercury, which is part of a preservative called thimerosol that is used in multi-dose vials of influenza vaccine. He claimed that amount to be “100 times” greater than the amount considered to be safe.
As an environmentalist, Kennedy should know that mercury is a natural part of the Earth’s crust. As a consequence, methylmercury (environmental mercury) is contained in water and anything made from water, like breast milk and infant formula. The human body eliminates ethylmercury from vaccines far more efficiently than it eliminates naturally occurring methylmercury.
Babies typically ingest about 360 micrograms of methylmercury during the first 6 months of life, well before they will ever receive their first dose of influenza vaccine. If the 25 micrograms of ethylmercury in vaccines is 100 times greater than what Kennedy claimed is safe, then simply by living on Earth, by 6 months of age babies will have ingested an amount of mercury that is 1,440 times greater than Kennedy’s safety limit.
According to Kennedy’s calculations, all of us are massively intoxicated with mercury. The only way to avoid this would be to move to another planet.
Kennedy also said that he wanted to ensure “that vaccines are subject to the same kind of safety scrutiny and safety testing that other drugs are subject to.” In fact, vaccines are subjected to greater scrutiny than drugs. Much greater. For example, the CDC spends tens of millions of dollars every year on the Vaccine Safety Datalink, a system of linked computerized medical records from several major health maintenance organizations that represents about 7 million Americans, 500,000 of whom are children. Nothing like this exists on the drug side. Frankly, if a Drug Safety Datalink existed, the problem with Vioxx as a cause of heart attacks might have been picked up much sooner.
Kennedy said, “We need to, prior to licensing vaccines, do gold standard safety testing, like every other drug approval requires. We need to do double-blind placebo testing.” Branswell knew that the FDA does require placebo-controlled trials before licensure. So she pushed back. “Sir, that’s done all the time,” she said. “That is done all the time.”
Branswell was right. Here’s an example of the kind of testing that vaccines are put through. One of the currently licensed vaccines against rotavirus was tested in a placebo-controlled, prospective, 11-country, four-year trial of more than 70,000 infants before being approved. That’s fairly typical of most pre-licensure trials. But STAT was stuck having to report Kennedy’s remarks as is, even though Branswell knew they were false. That was the deal. The interview had to be printed without contradiction.
Perhaps most outrageous was Kennedy’s claim that “the hepatitis B vaccines that are currently approved had fewer than five days of safety testing. That means that if the child has a seizure on the sixth day, it’s never seen. If the child dies, it’s never seen.” Safety monitoring for the hepatitis B vaccine, like all vaccines tested before being licensed, involved determining side effects in the vaccinated and unvaccinated group for weeks after each dose. Indeed, some subsets of vaccinated individuals have been monitored for 30 years after hepatitis B vaccination.
Throughout the interview, Kennedy never adequately addressed the new commission. Creating such a commission doesn’t make sense to me for two main reasons.
First, a vaccine safety commission already exists. It’s called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Staffed by epidemiologists, microbiologists, virologists, statisticians, molecular biologists, and clinicians, the CDC supervises the Vaccine Safety Datalink, which I described earlier. Whenever a new vaccine is licensed, this system quickly determines who’s been vaccinated and who hasn’t and detects any side effects that might be occurring more frequently in the vaccinated group.
Second, a commission for scientific integrity also already exists. Independent of the CDC, it’s called the Office for Research Integrity, and is housed in the Department of Health and Human Services.
It’s unfortunate that our culture, and our media, sometimes give celebrities a chance to comment without opposition on subjects about which they are often misinformed. It’s invariably the listener or reader who suffers this advice. Maybe journalists could at the very least add a cigarette-style caution to interviews like the one that STAT did with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Something like “CAUTION: Reading this article might be dangerous to your health.”
Paul A. Offit, M.D., is a professor of pediatrics and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. His most recent book is “Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong” (National Geographic Press, April 2017).
Whether you’re actively planning to become pregnant or not thinking about it quite yet, preconception care during your childbearing years is essential. One reason is because about half of all pregnancies in this country are unplanned. And unplanned pregnancies are at higher risk for preterm birth and low-birth weight babies.
And besides, anyone can benefit from preconception care. Essentially, it means taking good care of your body and mind during the period when you can have a child. And healthy living is good for everyone.
If you’re trying to have a baby or just have an inkling you might want to in the near future, here are some of the things you should focus on.
Path to improved well being
Whether this is your first, second, or sixth baby, the following are important steps to help you get ready for the healthiest pregnancy possible.
Up your folic acid. Folic acid is a B vitamin that our bodies use to make new cells. Folic acid is especially important during times when the cells are dividing and growing rapidly, such as during pregnancy. Getting adequate folic acid can help prevent two common and very serious neural tube defects (NTDs): spina bifida and anencephaly. Both occur very early in pregnancy (as early as 3 to 4 weeks after conception), which is before many women even know they’re pregnant.
Anencephaly is when a baby is born without the front part of the brain (forebrain) and the thinking and coordinating part of the brain (cerebrum). The remaining parts of the brain are often not covered by bone or skin.
Spina bifida can happen anywhere along the spine if the backbone that protects the spinal cord does not form and close properly. This often results in damage to the spinal cord and nerves. Spina bifida might cause physical and intellectual disabilities that range from mild to severe.
The U.S. Public Health Service and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that all women of childbearing age (between 15 and 45 years of age) consume 0.4 mg (400 micrograms) of folic acid every day.
Schedule a preconception checkup. It’s important to get any chronic conditions under control before you become pregnant. Identifying them now can help up your chances of having a healthy pregnancy for both you and your baby. Your visit should include discussions of:
Your medical and family history. If you have certain conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, asthma, seizure disorders, or maternal phenylketonuria, you’ll need to learn how to manage them during your pregnancy.
Any vaccines or boosters you may need. Some vaccines can be given during pregnancy, but the rubella (German measles) and varicella (chicken pox) vaccines should be given before you get pregnant.
All over-the-counter and prescription medicines you take, including dietary or herbal supplements. Certain medications can cause serious birth defects, so be sure to mention everything you’re taking.
Stop smoking and drinking alcohol. Both can increase the risk for preterm birth, NTDs, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). If you need help to stop, speak to your healthcare provider about what types of supports are in your area. You can also call 1-800-QUIT-NOW to be connected to your state’s “quitline.” For help with drug abuse, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Having supports in place will increase your chances of quitting successfully.
Get to a healthy weight. Being overweight can make it more difficult to conceive. It also increases your risk of certain issues during pregnancy, including high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, having a stillbirth, and increasing the chances of needing a cesarean delivery. Shedding the weight before becoming pregnant can help improve your chances of conceiving and delivering a healthy baby.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s adult body mass index (BMI) calculator can help you determine your BMI and figure out whether you’re in the healthy range. If not, speak to your healthcare provider about the best way to achieve your weight loss goals.
Stay away from certain fish. Some fish, including swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, and shark, contain a metal called methylmercury. Exposure to this metal can be harmful to a developing fetus. If you regularly eat these fish, methylmercury can build up in your bloodstream. Since it may take awhile to drop to a safe level, stay away from these four fish while you’re thinking of getting pregnant.
Other cooked fish and seafood are fine as long as you eat a variety of different kinds of fish. Choose up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of an assortment of fish and shellfish that are lower in methylmercury. These include shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. Keep in mind, albacore (“white”) tuna has more methylmercury than canned “light” tuna. So, when choosing your 2 meals, you may eat up to 6 ounces of albacore tuna per week.
Things to consider
Genetic counseling may be something you want to think about if certain conditions run in your family or your partner’s family. You will also want to know if a member of your family was born with a genetic condition, birth defect, chromosomal disorder, or cancer. Other reasons to see a genetic counselor include having had trouble getting pregnant, experiencing several miscarriages, infant deaths, or a birth defect with a previous pregnancy. Or if you or your partner are over age 35.
A genetic counselor can meet with you to discuss potential genetic risks. At your appointment, you’ll discuss your medical, family, and pregnancy history. The counselor will explain what genetic conditions your future children may be at risk for depending on your history, and recommend tests that can help diagnose any conditions. Once you gather all the information, you and your partner can make an informed decision about whether or not genetic testing is warranted.
Questions for your doctor
What kinds of vitamins should I take that include enough folic acid?
Are there any foods I should not be eating while trying to get pregnant?
Are there any activities I should not be doing while trying to get pregnant?
Could any of my current health conditions affect my pregnancy?
Could any of my past history (STDs, miscarriages, abortions) affect my future pregnancy?