Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has spent years using his famous name to disseminate false information about vaccines and other topics in a time when spreading conspiracy theories has become a powerful way to grow a constituency.
An Associated Press examination of his work and its impact found Kennedy has earned money, fame and political clout while leaving some people suffering from the fallout.
Kennedy’s campaign did not return emails seeking comment from the candidate, who is the son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy.
Here are the key takeaways from the AP’s reporting:
Twelve-year-old Braden Fahey didn’t die from getting a vaccine, yet a few months after his death in August 2022, his photo appeared on the cover of a book that was co-published by Kennedy’s anti-vaccine group. The book falsely argues COVID-19 vaccines caused a spike of sudden deaths among healthy young people.
Kennedy wrote the foreword and tweeted that it details data showing “ COVID shots are a crime against humanity.”
Braden’s parents have read comments from people who falsely blame vaccines for their son’s death. Seeing Braden’s memory being misrepresented by Kennedy and others has been deeply painful, they said. When they repeatedly tried reaching the author and publisher to get Braden’s name and photo removed, no one responded.
After AP contacted Kennedy and others involved in the book last week, the president of Skyhorse Publishing, which co-published the book, texted the Faheys. But Gina Fahey told AP she felt he did so only after it became clear it could harm his reputation.
The president of Skyhorse, Tony Lyons, did not address why Braden specifically was chosen for the cover but defended his inclusion by saying that news stories and his obituary did not mention his cause of death.
Lyons said he was unaware of the Faheys’ efforts to contact his company. He told AP this week they were studying whether to remove Braden from the book or the cover.
Lydia Greene, a mother who lives in the Canadian province of Alberta, previously identified herself as anti-vaccine and was a devoted Kennedy follower. She said she thought he was heroic because he was saying things that other people were too afraid to say.
She declined all vaccines for her son after buying into the insistence by Kennedy and other anti-vaccine “gurus” that vaccines cause autism. When her son started to show signs of autism, Greene discounted it because in the anti-vaccine movement, autism is painted as severe damage, and the worst outcome that can happen to a child. She didn’t see that in her son.
She said she did not recognize his condition until she “came out of the rabbit hole of anti-vax.”
“I realized I had wasted so much valuable time where he should have been in occupational therapy, speech therapy, evidence-based therapy for autism,” Greene said.
Perhaps the most well-known example of Kennedy’s anti-vaccine activism outside the U.S. was in 2019 on the Pacific island nation of Samoa.
That year, dozens of children died of measles. Many factors led to the wave of deaths, including medical mistakes and poor decisions by government authorities. But people involved in the response said Kennedy and the anti-vaccine activists he supported made things worse.
In June 2019, Kennedy and his wife, the actress Cheryl Hines, visited Samoa, a trip Kennedy later wrote was arranged by a local anti-vaccine influencer.
Vaccine rates had plummeted after two children died in 2018 from a measles vaccine that a nurse had incorrectly mixed with a muscle relaxant. The government suspended the vaccine program for months. By the time Kennedy arrived, health authorities were trying to get back on track.
Kennedy was treated as a distinguished guest and met with the prime minister and other officials. He also met with anti-vaccine activists, one of whom wrote on Instagram that the meeting was “profoundly monumental … for this movement.”
A few months later, a measles epidemic broke out in Samoa, killing 83 people, mostly infants and children.
Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccinologist from New Zealand who worked on the response, told AP that local and regional anti-vaccine activists took their cues from Kennedy.
“They amplified the fear and mistrust, which resulted in the amplification of the epidemic and an increased number of children dying. Children were being brought for care too late,” she said.
In an interview for a forthcoming documentary, “Shot in the Arm,” Kennedy said he bears no responsibility for the outcome.
THE IMPACT ON OFFICIALS AND HEALTH ADVOCATES
Former California state Sen. Richard Pan is a pediatrician who recalled what happened when lawmakers were debating a bill he sponsored to make it more difficult to get a vaccine exemption.
Kennedy opposed the bill and came to Sacramento to advocate against it. As a crowd gathered outside the capitol, Kennedy stood to speak. Two large posters behind him featured Pan’s image, with the word “LIAR” stamped across his face in blood-red paint. Pan told AP he felt the staging was intended to incite the crowd against him.
Within months, one anti-vaccine extremist assaulted Pan, streaming it live on Facebook. Another threw blood at Pan and other lawmakers.
Kennedy has repeatedly brought up the Holocaust when discussing vaccines and public health mandates, comparisons that Pan said amount to an “indirect call to violence” against health advocates.
Pan said it’s one of many instances when Kennedy has whipped people up against public health advocates. Kennedy also wrote a bestselling book attacking Anthony Fauci, who has received death threats.
Pan said people trying their best to protect children are “being threatened and even assaulted because of his rhetoric and his lies. That harms America.”
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Michelle R. Smith And Ali Swenson, The Associated Press