A sobering analysis of what it might take to overcome vaccine skepticism

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. epitomizes the modern American success story. He has no notable achievements of his own but because of inherited family wealth and the well-known Kennedy name (he is the son of the late Robert F. Kennedy), he has the kind of influence that is so helpful in staying relevant. In fact, the ‘success’ of the entire Kennedy clan can be traced back to the ambitions of his wealthy grandfather Joseph Kennedy who paved the way to elite education and political success for his descendants.

Kennedy has now entered the contest for the Democratic nomination for president. He is a notorious anti-vaccine crusader and this will simply give him a platform to further propagate his views, while the family name will give him more publicity. Indeed his anti-vaccine misinformation got him banned from Facebook and Instagram and he used the loophole of his candidacy to get back on those platforms. He is also a hypocrite. While making all manner of outlandish and offensive claims about the dangers of vaccines, when he hosted a party at his home, he urged all guests to be vaccinated or be tested for Covid-19. He has also profited greatly from his anti-vaccine stance.

In an interview with On The Media‘s Brandy Zadrozny, Paul Offit, a pediatrician and inventor of the vaccine against rotavirus, describes an interaction he had with Kennedy.

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.

But Kennedy then published a 4,700-word hit piece on Offit and vaccines that was published in. Rolling Stone magazine, that was subsequently debunked by researchers and journalists and ultimately retracted. But the damage was done. There is little doubt that it was the Kennedy name that eased the path to publication because he has no credentials in this area whatsoever.

Offit says that vaccines are victims of their own success. They have managed to eliminate or reduce the extent of so many diseases that people have forgotten what it was like when those diseases were virulent and think those diseases have gone away for good, and thus fall prey to those who falsely preach that vaccines pose greater anger than the diseases themselves. He fears that it will take a resurgence of outbreaks of diseases for people to once again realize how valuable they are. He describes a sobering conversation he had with vaccine pioneer Maurice Hilleman. (I have written about Hilleman before, someone who plausibly saved more lives that any other person ever.)

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.

It is tragic to think that as a result of these anti-vaccine fanatics, we are laying ourselves wide open to outbreaks of diseases that will result in the avoidable deaths of many, many people. Their blood will be on the hands of Kennedy and his ilk.


  1. moonslicer says

    One measure of intelligence is knowing your limits. I myself am smart enough to know when I know SFA about a given topic. As a result I’m willing to listen to those who do know something about it.

    These idiot anti-vaxxers don’t know their limits. They have no idea how complex a field medicine is. It’s not something you read a few articles about and then claim you’ve got some expertise in the field. It requires a bit more effort than that.

    I’ve been studying French my entire adult life, but I still don’t have the instinctive understanding of the language that a 6-year-old French kid would have. I don’t get upset about that. It’s just one of my limits.

  2. garnetstar says

    They’re right about having to see the diseases to change. Mississippi and West Virginia have the strongest vaccine laws in America: mandatory vaccines for schoolchildren, no exceptions unless they have a serious medical condition.

    Why is that? Those are the two poorest states, and disease lingered among the poor much longer than it did in better-off states and people. They’ve seen more recently than the rest of the country what those diseases do and went strictly pro-vax because of it.

  3. says

    They have no idea how complex a field medicine is.

    There are loads of good books explaining virology and immunity. I’d say it’s impossible to be an anti-vaxxer without choosing to remain ignorant. Being ignorant by choice is a sin.

    Since I’m at it, I recommend Philipp Dettmer’s book Immune. It’s an excellent introduction to how crazy and amazing our cobbled-together immune systems are.

  4. SailorStar says

    There’s a website I’ve been reading for close to two decades now that focuses on the Paleo lifestyle and related health matters. When stripped to its core, Paleo is about exercising, getting enough sleep, and avoiding processed food and concentrating on a varied diet. A typical week’s information might cover whether or not supplements are necessary, different kinds of weight-bearing exercises and how to do them, maybe a couple of recipes that feature seasonal foods, and maybe some recent medical studies about this, that, or the other.

    Two weeks ago the site went anti-vaxxer against the Covid vaccine, and the commenters were just atrocious. For example, one guy who claimed Covid didn’t exist…also claimed that doctors were putting patients on ventilators simply to kill them…because the doctors didn’t want to get sick. I pointed out if the people weren’t sick in the first place, why were they in the hospital in the first place, and how could the doctors possibly get sick from people who were not sick in the first place? My comment was deleted, but the crazy is still up there.

  5. larpar says

    SailorStar @ 4
    I don’t know why you were surprised. They didn’t have vaccines during the paleolithic era. : )

  6. SailorStar says

    @5; the site in 20 years has not taken any stance about vaccination: tetanus (run around outside, that’s a great vax to have), chicken pox, polio…not a peep. It’s just this one vax that’s suddenly suspect. Gee, I wonder why? (Spoiler: no, I don’t)

  7. Matt G says

    There was a survey in the USback in the summer of 2020: if a vaccine becomes scarce, will you get it? A full third of respondents said no. Keep in mind that people had seen hospitals and morgues were overflowing at the that point. Once getting vaccinated was seen as the “liberal” (pro-science, pro-CDC, pro-government intervention, anti-religion) thing to do, conservatives crusaded against it. As the vaccine proved to be safe and effective, instead of relenting they doubled down in their opposition. A 50-someone guy I knew told me recently that he didn’t mind wearing a mask as much when it was not mandatory. This perfectly illustrates the adolescent mindset of the modern conservative: opposition to show how independent I am. I’ll do stupid and dangerous things because you told me not to.

  8. Matt G says

    Oops, I left an unclosed emphasis tag. I hope it doesn’t mess up this thread. Sorry if it did.

    [I fixed it. Mano]

  9. sonofrojblake says

    I’ll do stupid and dangerous things because you told me not to.

    Can we persuade a bunch of epidemiologists, drag queens, critical race theory lecturers and prominent atheists to get together and campaign against shooting yourself in the face with a shotgun? Can we get all the Democrat controlled states and other legislative bodies to pass laws making shooting yourself in the face with a shotgun illegal? I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?

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