Robert F. Kennedy Jr. brings polarizing position to Aspen autism event | SummitDaily.com

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. brings polarizing position to Aspen autism event

Robert Kennedy Jr.'s scheduled appearance at a fundraiser for autism next month is not an implicit endorsement of his longtime view that vaccines cause the disorder.

That's according to Sallie Bernard, founder and board president of Ascendigo autism services, the organization behind the Light It Up Blue Aspen Autism Benefit set for Feb. 18.

"Our mission is to empower anyone with autism to have a full life," Bernard said Friday. "We focus on our mission. We don't get into issues around causation."

Kennedy, also known for his environmental advocacy, has long been associated with those who believe some vaccines are unsafe and cause autism. Specifically, Kennedy is suspicious of a chemical called thimerosal, a form of ethylmercury used to prevent contamination of multi-dose vaccines.

Thimerosal was removed from all childhood vaccines except some flu vaccines between 1999 and 2001, according to a section of the Centers for Disease Control website titled "Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism." That was done as a precaution before nine studies either funded by or conducted by the CDC since 2003 discovered no link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism, according to the CDC website.

The studies also found no link between autism and childhood vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella, the website states.

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Kennedy, however, remains undeterred.

He wrote a book in 2014 titled "Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak," appeared in a 2014 documentary examining the "hidden truth" about thimerosal and autism called "Trace Amounts," and used the terms "hoax," "fiction" and "baloney" in an interview Friday with The Aspen Times to describe mainstream science's conclusions on the subject.

"The press also swallows the fiction that this has been disproved by science," Kennedy said.

Light It Up Blue Aspen not only invited Kennedy as a guest of honor at next month's fundraiser, it also is publicizing "an intimate VIP reception at a private Aspen estate featuring a screening" of "Trace Amounts" that Kennedy will attend and answer questions about, according to Light It Up Blue's website.

"Bobby Kennedy has the stature and background to focus the public interest on autism and the needs of people in the autism community," Bernard said. "We invited him for that reason."

Bernard also pointed out that another guest of honor at this year's sixth annual fundraiser is Areva Martin, a television personality and autism rights advocate who does not believe in the link between vaccines and autism.

"If you invite people involved in autism, you get a variety of views," Bernard said. "If you're on board with our mission, that's a win for us."

The film screening, however, needed some clarification, she said.

It may feature "Trace Amounts," it is a separate event put together by a Kennedy-led organization and it is only on Light It Up Blue's website as part of a "cross-marketing" effort, said Bernard and an Ascendigo spokesperson. The website makes no mention of the Kennedy organization's role, though, and Kennedy said Friday he didn't know anything about the screening.

Liz Stark, Pitkin County's public health director, said she subscribes to the mainstream view that no link between vaccines and autism has been proven. Most county residents support the use of vaccines, she said, though state law allows parents to file exemptions for medical, religious or personal beliefs, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment website.

Still, Kennedy's appearance at the autism organization's fundraiser is worrisome, Stark said.

"What concerns me is that by Robert Kennedy being a guest of honor for this (nonprofit), to me implies this group is supportive of his stance on vaccines," Stark said. "And, as public health director, I'm concerned about Robert Kennedy's position on vaccines."

Stark also said she was apprehensive about Kennedy possibly chairing a vaccine safety commission appointed by President Donald Trump. Kennedy met with Trump earlier this month, apparently about such a position, though Trump's then-transition team later released a statement about the meeting saying no decision had yet been made about a vaccine commission, according to media reports.

For his part, Kennedy said Friday he's "100 percent pro-vaccine," though he claimed 81 studies have linked thimerosal to autism and "a vast constellation of neurological disorders." This "independent science" is ignored by mainstream science, he said.

"I don't buy (the mainstream science conclusion) in any way," Kennedy said.

He did acknowledge that thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines more than a decade and a half ago. However, Kennedy said that around the same time, the government mandated that pregnant women and young children receive flu vaccines, some of which contain thimerosal. Now children receive even larger doses of the chemical, he said.

"It's a hoax (that) they took it out," Kennedy said.

Ascendigo will remain outside the debate about the link between vaccines and autism, Bernard said her own personal views are more complicated.

"We need open science," she said. "There is some research that ties vaccines to autism, so that needs to be included.

"There's a lot of details in the research that (mainstream science) doesn't take into account."

jauslander@aspentimes.com