National vaccination opposition group plans to sue UC system over flu immunization policy

Photo of Robert Kennedy, who is suing the UC over its flu shot policy.
Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons
Robert Kennedy Jr., founder of national anti-vaccination group Children’s Health Defense, plans to sue the UC system over its new mandatory flu vaccine policy.

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Children’s Health Defense, or CHD, plans to sue the UC system over its new mandatory flu vaccine policy, as announced Aug. 11.

CHD is a national anti-vaccination group. On the CHD website, founder Robert Kennedy Jr. cited multiple studies that he said show flu vaccines increase the risk posed by the coronavirus. Some of his claims, however, are misinterpretations of data, according to UC Berkeley professors.

The UC Office of the President, or UCOP, announced Aug. 7 that all students and employees are required to get the flu vaccine by Nov. 1. The policy is an effort to promote public safety and decrease the combined burden to the health care system from COVID-19 and influenza cases in the coming seasons.

“The additional action was needed at this time, given the unique and serious conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic in circulation simultaneously with influenza,” said UCOP spokesperson Heather Harper in an email. “The influenza vaccination requirement was deemed necessary for the health of the entire community.”

Harper said the university cannot comment on CHD’s plans because it has not received a lawsuit.

Campus School of Public Health professor Lee Riley said Kennedy misinterpreted all but one of the studies he cited. Riley added that the correctly interpreted study — a Hong Kong study that found that flu shots resulted in a 4.4 times greater risk for nonflu respiratory infections — is “totally irrelevant” to the situation with the coronavirus.

Kennedy also cited an Australian study and said it found that flu shots doubled the risk of nonflu viral lung infections. According to Riley, however, the results show the opposite of this.

CHD could not be reached for comment as of press time.

“This article by Robert Kennedy is verging on fabrication,” Riley said in an email. “It appears that Mr Kennedy is either seeking publicity for his cause or has some other motive by either intentionally or unintentionally mis-interpreting the publications.”

Campus public health professor John Swartzberg said the planned lawsuit is “typical screed” from a comparatively small group of people who are against vaccines. He added that the studies CHD cited have been selectively chosen from a large amount of research that does not show an association between flu vaccines and increased risk of contracting other infections.

Because all the studies Kennedy cited are observational, even if they show an association between the flu vaccine and risk of getting other infections, Swartzberg said he thinks they do not prove that the vaccine causes this greater risk.

“The decision to require vaccination for staff, faculty, and students is a wise one,” Swartzberg said in an email. “If we have even an average influenza season this year, when combined with Covid-19 we could exceed the capacity of our hospitals to care for these patients.”

Contact Emma Rooholfada at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @erooholfada_dc.