After a meeting in Trump Tower with President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday, prominent vaccine critic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. mobilized anti-vaccine activists to promote a controversial new safety panel.
"They are getting massive blowback and waivering [sic]," Kennedy wrote in an email reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
Kennedy, 62, is a longtime environmental activist, the son of the late attorney general, and the nephew of President John F. Kennedy. He has gained acclaim in vaccine skeptic circles for his 2014 book, Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak, in which he argued that a mercury-based preservative used in some vaccines was linked to autism. He emerged from meeting Trump just after 2 p.m. ET on Tuesday, and said the president-elect had personally asked him to chair a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity.
The Trump transition team later released a statement saying that while the new administration was considering forming a committee on autism, “no decisions have been made at this time.”
Kennedy did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has clearly stated that there is "no link between vaccines and autism.” Public health groups echoed that point yesterday as word came of a potential safety commission headed by Kennedy, and reacted strongly against the suggestion that vaccines are dangerous.
"Vaccines protect children’s health and save lives," the American Academy of Pediatrics reiterated in a statement on the news. "Claims that vaccines are linked to autism, or are unsafe when administered according to the recommended schedule, have been disproven by a robust body of medical literature."
"Some people may choose not to believe the facts, but perpetuating a myth from the very highest levels poses a dangerous threat to public health," Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation, said in a statement.
"Creating a commission makes it look like scientists have not already studied this issue for many years, and it may lead people to think this is still an open question. It is not."
According to Kennedy's email, he responded to the criticism at 11 p.m. ET by contacting a long list of anti-vaccine activists for support. "Hey everyone. Need you to email Trump support of vaccine commission. They are getting massive blowback and waivering [sic]," he wrote, in an email sent from his iPhone.
Trump's potential appointment was strongly welcomed on Wednesday by many in the activist community who believe that excessive vaccination is spurring an "epidemic" of autism and other chronic diseases among children. US autism rates have been rising since the late 1990s, and now 1 in 45 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, though the CDC has attributed this to changes in diagnoses and surveys. Thimerosal was discontinued as a preservative in children's vaccines in 1999, though it is now widely considered safe by the medical community.
Many activists feel that Kennedy could spearhead a sea change in how decisions about vaccines are made in the US.
"I’m pretty tapped in to the autism community, and I never got more emails in a shorter period of time than yesterday afternoon — this is electrifying," Dan Olmsted, editor of a blog called Age of Autism, which saw a nearly twofold increase in website traffic after yesterday's news, told BuzzFeed News. "Now you’ve got the president-elect talking to the most high-profile vaccine safety challenger in the country. It’s just a whole different universe."
Kennedy suggested yesterday in an interview with Science that the main focus of a vaccine safety commission would be on the CDC, which he said "is the locus of most of the most serious problems with the vaccine program."
The focus on the CDC is being heralded as a victory by some in the anti-vaccine community, as well.
"My hope is that this commission cracks open the data that exists at CDC and tells the American people the truth," J.B. Handley, co-founder of Generation Rescue, Jenny McCarthy's autism organization, told BuzzFeed News. "We are mobilized, energized, and extremely hopeful based on the appointment of Bobby Kennedy. In my personal opinion [Trump] picked the best possible person to head the commission."
While Trump's team backpedaling on Kennedy's appointment to lead the vaccine safety commission was dismaying, activists still see the overall move as a boon for the anti-vaccine and autism movements.
"People went from I think elated to kind of confused and disheartened," Olmsted said. "But this is how things move forward. I think we all feel it's moving forward in a way where in this new administration we’re going to get more attention paid to this."
"It’s already a fringe issue," Olmsted continued. "I think it’s actually coming to the mainstream now."