With the election a mere five days away, Bobby Shriver looked to get a bit of the old Kennedy magic by campaigning with his cousin, Bobby Kennedy, Jr., in the San Fernando Valley.
Kennedy is a well-known environmental lawyer and activist, and for a while he was considered to be candidate material. But his views on vaccines – that they contain thimerosal, which itself contains mercury which some say increases the risk of a child developing autism – have placed him in the category of kooky, left-wing pseudoscience pusher. After all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Institute of Medicine, there is zero evidence linking thimerosal to any sort of brain disorder, including autism. And besides, most childhood vaccines today contain only trace amounts of thimerosal, if any at all.
When asked this week about his own views on vaccines and autism, Shriver replied, "I don’t know the issue. I haven't studied the issue."
Despite the scientific and medical establishment coming down firmly on the "vaccines do not cause autism" side, this weird myth, propagated by such leading lights as Jenny McCarthy (who denies being an anti-vaxxer) has thrived, especially among moms and dads on L.A.'s well-to-do (and ardently liberal) Westside.
A recent expose in The Hollywood Reporter concluded that in dozens of Westside schools, large numbers of parents were opting out of vaccinating their kids – 53 percent refused vaccinations for their children in the Children's Creative Workshop in Malibu, 68 percent at Santa Monica's Waldorf Early Childhood Center, 75 percent at the Westside Waldorf School in the Palisades.
Those levels are on par with some of the poorest countries in the world, which can't afford the vaccines.
And of course, these New Age anti-vax parents aren't just hurting their own children. Vaccines work through herd immunity – i.e., enough people get vaccinated, a disease can't spread, and everyone is protected.
Which is why whooping cough, which had been all but eliminated by vaccinations, is making a resurgence. L.A. County has had 1,317 whooping cough this year. And at least three babies in California have died from the illness. There have also been 61 cases of the measles in the state this year.
Bobby Kennedy, Jr. hasn't just said a few nutty things about vaccines. He's a well-known spokesman for the movement. Kennedy edited an anti-vaccine movement book. It's pretty much what the guy is known for.
So when L.A. Weekly learned that Shriver, a candidate to replace Zev Yaroslavsky on the powerful L.A. County Board of Supervisors, was appearing at a few campaign events with Kennedy, we called the campaign to see if Shriver shared his cousin's kooky beliefs.
At first the campaign blew us off.
"I've never had a discussion with him about it," said Shriver's chief strategist, the affable Bill Carrick, in his charming Southern accent.
Then we showed up to one of the events, held in the Tom Baker Dining Room of the Fickett Towers Senior Center in Van Nuys. There, in front of oh, about 20 senior citizens, Kennedy, Jr. introduced Shriver. The always energetic Shriver took a number of questions from the audience, including one about buses that don't reach low enough to the sidewalk, but he dodged this reporter's question about vaccines, saying it was off-topic.
Finally, in the parking lot after the event, we shared this exchange:
L.A. Weekly: Did you wanna answer the question or not? I’ll put in that you don’t wanna answer it, that’s fine, I’m not gonna force you.
Shriver: I honestly don’t think it’s a serious – I mean for me, right now, I don’t know the issue. I haven't studied the issue.
L.A. Weekly: You don’t know if vaccines can be linked to autism?
Shriver: I haven’t done the research.
L.A. Weekly: OK. Are your kids vaccinated?
Shriver: Of course! My children? Yes.
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L.A. Weekly: Well, would you recommend other people get their kids vaccinated?
Shriver: I recommend that they follow the advice of their doctors.
The L.A. County Board of Supervisors for which he is running, by the by, oversees the L.A. County Department of Public Health, the second-largest public health department in the country.
Shriver's opponent, Sheila Kuehl, did not respond to a request for comment.