As if Albany needed an extra dose of crazy, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. came to the capital this week to inveigh against a bill that would mandate meningitis vaccinations for all New York State 7th and 12th graders. The measure is one of those better-living-through-medicine things that Americans once championed reflexively. But today ... maybe not so much.
A well-known skeptic of certain vaccines for kids, Kennedy said the shots could "make our children dumber." That's an awful statement by any interpretation. What he was trying to say is that, because the vaccine contains mercury thimerosal as a preservative, it could lead to autism in children.
Only he's wrong about that on two counts.
Backers of the bill say the vaccine envisioned for New York would contain no thimerosal. I believe them. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that with the exception of some flu vaccines, thimerosal hasn't been used as a preservative in routine childhood immunizations for 14 years.
And even if the vaccine did contain thimerosal -- which it won't -- there's zero proof that this might lead to autism. That's the unequivocal finding of experienced disease-fighting organizations like UNICEF, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations, the CDC and the World Health Organization. Their studies have been rigorous and their conclusions unanimous.
Still, this high wall of evidence didn't stop the anti-vax crowd from trash-talking.
Kennedy accused statehouse reporters of serving up stale scientific orthodoxies, and he alleged that big pharmaceutical companies were poisoning our children.
Michael Smith of Autism Action Network suggested that legislators were cravenly supporting vaccinations because Big Pharma was filling their campaign coffers. The problem with that reasoning? The vaccine makes sense on its own merits. Where's the cravenness? The interests of Big Pharma and New York school children and willing legislators happen to be aligned.
Though maybe 1,200 people contract meningococcal disease in this country each year, up to 15 percent of these cases are fatal. And around 19 percent of those who survive suffer permanent hearing loss, delayed development, loss of limbs and other problems.
While it's not exactly easy to spread, the meningitis bacteria can be transmitted through respiratory and throat secretions like saliva. Boyfriends and girlfriends are susceptible. So are people who live together in close quarters. And as New Yorkers learned in last year's Ebola scare, a communicable disease that seems a very remote threat can become a clear and present danger in a heartbeat.
More than 20 states mandate the meningitis vaccine now. Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther of Sullivan County and Sen. Kemp Hannon of Long Island are sponsoring New York's legislation.
Here's hoping the measure passes overwhelmingly. As the legislature struggles to wrap up what amounts to an indictment-laden annus horribilis, the vaccine bill is a chance to rout -- if just for a moment -- the restless suspicions and dark forebodings that currently grip the statehouse and strike a smart blow for humankind.