Americans have every right to be alarmed about the outbreak of measles in pockets of our country with unusually high rates of unvaccinated citizens, especially children. Right now, officials in 22 states are grappling with a resurgence of the disease, which was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000. With over 700 cases already reported and indications that more outbreaks will occur, 2019 will likely see the most recorded cases of measles in decades. And it’s not just measles. In Maine, health officials in March reported 41 new cases of whooping cough, another disease once thought to be a relic of the past—more than twice as many cases as this time last year.
This problem isn’t only an American one. The World Health Organization reports a 300 percent increase in the numbers of measles cases around the world this year compared with the first three months of 2018. More than 110,000 people are now dying from measles every year. The WHO, the health arm of the United Nations, has listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019. Most cases of preventable diseases occur among unvaccinated children, because parents have chosen not to vaccinate, have delayed vaccination, have difficulty accessing vaccines, or the children were too young to receive the vaccines.
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These tragic numbers are caused by the growing fear and mistrust of vaccines—amplified by internet doomsayers. 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.
We love Bobby. He is one of the great champions of the environment. His work to clean up the Hudson River and his tireless advocacy against multinational organizations who have polluted our waterways and endangered families has positively affected the lives of countless Americans. We stand behind him in his ongoing fight to protect our environment. However, on vaccines he is wrong.
And his and others’ work against vaccines is having heartbreaking consequences. The challenge for public health officials right now is that many people are more afraid of the vaccines than the diseases, because they’ve been lucky enough to have never seen the diseases and their devastating impact. But that’s not luck; it’s the result of concerted vaccination efforts over many years. We don’t need measles outbreaks to remind us of the value of vaccination.
It is understandable that parents may have questions about vaccines and health care procedures concerning their children. We need to be able to have conversations that address skepticism about the safety and efficacy of vaccines without demonizing doubters. The reality is that vaccines can have side effects. However, the public health benefits of vaccines to every citizen far outweigh any potential side effects, which, when they do occur, are overwhelmingly minor, rarely serious, and more than justified by the overall benefit to vulnerable populations.
The fact is that immunizations prevent some 2 million to 3 million deaths a year, and have the potential to save another 1.5 million lives every year with broader vaccine coverage, according to the WHO. Smallpox, which plagued mankind for thousands of years, has been eradicated through vaccines. Because of immunizations, no cases of polio have been reported in the United States since 1979. And countries such as Australia, with robust human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine programs, are on track to eliminate cervical cancer, a major killer of women around the world, in the next decade. This is the only vaccine we have that fights cancer. No matter what you might have read on social media, there is no scientific basis to allegations that vaccines against HPV pose a serious health threat. And numerous studies from many countries by many researchers have concluded that there is no link between autism and vaccines.
As parents and concerned citizens, we stand behind the hard work of scientists and public health professionals at organizations like the WHO and the Department of Health and Human Services, whether in the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Food and Drug Administration. Their tireless efforts guide the development, testing and distribution of safe and effective vaccines against 16 diseases, including measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, influenza and HPV. The necessity and safety of vaccines are backed up by every major medical organization, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association and scores of others.
And we are proud of the history of our family as advocates of public health and promoters of immunization campaigns to bring life-saving vaccines to the poorest and most remote corners of America and the world, where children are the least likely to receive their full course of vaccinations. On this issue, Bobby is an outlier in the Kennedy family. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy urged the 80 million Americans, including almost 5 million 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 U.S. Agency for International Development, which has spent billions of dollars over the past decades in support of vaccine campaigns in developing countries.
President Kennedy signed the Vaccination Assistance Act in 1962 to, in the words of a CDC report, “achieve as quickly as possible the protection of the population, especially of all preschool children … through intensive immunization activity.” In a message to Congress that year, Kennedy said: “There is no longer any reason why American children should suffer from polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, or tetanus … I am asking the American people to join in a nationwide vaccination program to stamp out these four diseases.”
While serving as attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy promoted community empowerment models to address urgent social needs like better health care, leading to the development of community health centers, which our uncle Ted Kennedy championed throughout his long career in the Senate. Community health centers have been on the front lines of vaccination campaigns for more than 50 years in rural America, in inner-city neighborhoods and on Native American reservations to immunize our most vulnerable populations.
Senator Kennedy led numerous campaigns for reauthorization of the Vaccination Assistance Act, took up the fight for the Child Immunization Initiative of 1993, and authored many other measures to increase the availability of vaccines for uninsured adults through community health centers.
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 immunizations reach every child on the globe through safe, effective and affordable vaccines. Everyone must communicate the benefits and safety of vaccines, and advocate for the respect and confidence of the institutions which make them possible. To do otherwise risks even further erosion of one of public health’s greatest achievements.