Revealing the true face of the antivaccine movement

Late last week, something happened that I never would have predicted, and it’s all due to how the politics of the issue changed in the wake of the Disneyland measles outbreak earlier this year. The state that contains some of the most famous pockets of low vaccine uptake and some of the most famous antivaccine “luminaries,” including pediatricians like Dr. Bob Sears and Jay Gordon, as well as actual celebrities like Rob Schneider, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Maher, Charlie Sheen, and Mayim Bialik, actually passed a law, SB 277, that eliminates non-medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. It’s now been sent to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for his signature:

Gov. Jerry Brown must now decide whether to sign into law a bill that would require mandatory vaccinations for nearly all California schoolchildren.

The measure, spawned by an outbreak of measles at Disneyland that ultimately infected more than 150 people, cleared its final legislative hurdle Monday in the state Senate. Brown has not said publicly whether he would sign it.

The measure — one of the toughest vaccination bills in the nation — would require children enrolling in school or day care to be immunized against diseases including measles and whooping cough.

Parents would no longer be able to cite personal or religious beliefs to decline the vaccinations, although children with certain medical problems, such as immune system deficiencies, would be exempt.

Those who decline the vaccinations would have to enroll their children in a home-based private school or public independent study program based off campus.

The bill was one of the most contentious taken up by the Legislature this year, attracting large, vocal crowds of parents during a series of legislative hearings on the measure.


To say it was contentious is an understatement. Indeed, as I’ve repeated—probably more times than regular readers want to hear—even in the wake of the Disneyland measles outbreak, I expected this bill to fail. I was more than pleasantly surprised as the bill cleared hurdle after hurdle despite all opposition and attempts to water it down to uselessness to the point of taking on an air of inevitability last week in the days leading up to the final vote in the state assembly last week that sent SB 277 to the governor’s desk. That’s great. But we can’t let up the pressure. As you might recall, when an earlier bill in California, AB 2109, was passed into law its intent was to make it more difficult to obtain non-medical exemptions was sabotaged by Governor Brown when he added a signing statement to it. That signing statement directed the California Department of Public Health to add a checkbox on the form for a religious exemption that basically permitted any parent who checked it to skip the Law’s requirement to obtain counseling from specified health care practitioners regarding the risks and benefits of vaccination before a non-medical exemption would be granted. There was no provision in the law for this, and Governor Brown’s action was a profound betrayal of the children of California. We hope he won’t do something like that again, but I sure as hell don’t trust him not to. So if you live in California, keep up the pressure. Certainly the antivaccinationists are. If SB 277 becomes law and California joins Mississippi and West Virginia as states that permit no non-medical exemptions, it will be a watershed. It might even be a turning point that persuades other states to pass similar laws.

It might be a watershed event, a turning point, in a different sort of way. Specifically, the antivaccine war against SB 277, for the first time that I can remember, resulted in the nastiness in the antivaccine movement to percolate up through the media noise to reach the attention of ordinary Americans, most of whom had no idea just how looney and nasty these people can be. Let’s just put it this way. Those of us who stand up for science with respect to vaccines and have been doing so for more than a brief period of time have all experienced varying degrees of vilification and even outright harassment. I myself have had antivaccine zealots contact my bosses at work on a number of occasions; on one occasion our old friend Jake Crosby wrote a post accusing me of an undisclosed conflict of interest and being in the pocket of big pharma, thus inspiring knuckle draggers from the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism to sent complaints to my dean, my cancer center director, and the board of directors at my university. While I must admit that their actions caused me considerable agita at the time, in the end I emerged with much less concern and fear over such attacks because I realized that my university values academic freedom, as do most universities. Of course, the same doesn’t apply to private companies, and people who work in industry or non-university settings can be basically screwed when antivaccine activists target them.

One thing’s for sure, though. Antivaccinationists did themselves no favors in their war against SB 277. Whether it was a persecution complex that led some of them to compare their plight to that of Jews during the Holocaust, a campaign of harassment and vilification of lawmakers and supporters of SB 277 on social media like Twitter, or cozying up to the Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology in full-on conspiracy mode, antivaccine activists did a better job than I (or any other bloggers ever could) of making themselves look like total loons to anyone with half a brain.

Evidence of this just appeared yesterday in an article in Jezebel by Anna Merlan entitled, Meet the New, Dangerous Fringe of the Anti-Vaccination Movement. Basically, it is about examples of antivaccine nastiness culled from the Anti-Vax Wall of Shame (AVWoS), a Facebook group that collects examples of the most outrageously stupid and/or nasty rhetoric from antivaccine activists on social media. The group exists to expose (and mock), things like what the Jezebel article describes, such as vile messages sent to a mother who belonged to AVWoS.

One thing I learned from the article as well is that there exists another Facebook page, Anti Vax Wall of Shame – The Fall of the Wall that is, apparently, the response of antivaccine activists to AVWoS. I took a few minutes to peruse this AVWoS mirror image and was rather puzzled. For one thing, unlike AVWoS, it wasn’t particularly funny, an it’s not just because of what side I’m on. Believe it or not, I can appreciate truly clever jabs directed at “my side,” even chuckle at them. There really wasn’t anything to chuckle at there that I saw. In fact, I agree with Merlan’s characterization:

Fall of the Wall tends to skew a little less snarky than the Wall of Shame, and a little weirder. It uses an image of someone in a Guy Fawkes mask, clearly taken from a screengrab of an Anonymous video, and makes some wild claims, including that the Anti-Vax Wall of Shame folks are cleverly infecting anti-vaccination activists with computer viruses embedded in photos and links.

Because, obviously, you can’t have antivaccine activism without conspiracy theories. After all, these are the people who, upon learning that the body of one of their most admired “autism biomed” quacks, Jeffery Bradstreet, had been found in a river with a gunshot wound to the chest that appeared to be due to suicide, immediately went into full conspiracy mode, speculating that big pharma had put the hit on him for threatening them. It also has to do with harassing their enemies:

According to pro-vaccination groups, other opponents of SB 277 resorted to harassment, threats, doxxing and nasty impersonation. The mother of the 11-year-old girl—who asked that her name and her daughter’s name be withheld to protect their privacy and safety—told Jezebel that she’s a frequent commenter on Anti-Vax Wall of Shame, and that her daughter was contacted after a Fall of the Wall commenter started combing through her own public Facebook photos.

“She made it clear she was going through my pictures, making remarks about my husband having AIDS and how ugly my children are,” the woman says. “That their teeth are rotting out and they look retarded.”

Next, she says, came the message to her daughter (she provided a screenshot of the message to Jezebel, saying that it came from a sock puppet account impersonating her sister, which has since been taken down). She’s not sure whether the intention was to frighten her child, make her angry, or just show that she could find the woman’s family, but in any case, she’s furious.

And:

One woman who’s testified in favor of the bill—who also asked not to be named, for fear of drawing more troll attention—said that photos of her, her husband and her baby have been tweeted by anti-vaxxers. The day after she spoke in favor of the bill at a public hearing, she saw groups on Facebook speculating that she was affiliated with Merck, the drug company.

“I went home and they’d started posting all my stuff to their Facebook group,” she says. “Things like, ‘She’s an investor paid by Merck. I’ve never met anybody from Merck in my entire life.’”

In an email sent to Jezebel in May, the same woman said the group also speculated about whether someone needed to call Child Protective Services on her.

“Today the anti-vaxxers were discussing calling CPS on me because they think I have ‘mental health problems,’’ she wrote. “They think if they file a case report someone will come to my house and discover that my son is in danger, and then I will leave them alone. They have no fucking boundaries.”

And:

But the doxxing, harassment, and unhinged Hitler comparisons have SB 277 supporters feeling frightened too. While Jezebel spoke with several supporters who said they’d been threatened, doxxed, harassed, or Twitter-mobbed by anti-vax groups, only [Dorit] Reiss and [Alison] Hagood, the Colorado professor, would allow us to use their names. Both women are tenured, and both of them said it’s made it easier for them to continue talking and writing about vaccines in the face of so much increasingly delusional opposition.

This is a phenomenon that is all too familiar to anyone opposing the antivaccine movement. As I said, people who have academic positions, like myself and these women, tend to be more resistant to these tactics at work. Indeed, to get an idea of how these people think, go no further than the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism this morning where Kent Heckenlively likens SB 277 to the Fugitive Slave Act. Yes, he actually went there:

Consider the slave-owning South prior to the American Civil War. A trickle of slaves, perhaps 1,000-5,000 were escaping each year (out of an estimated population of 3,000,000 slaves), beginning their lives in the North, and speaking freely of what they endured under the lash of their slave-masters.

The escaped slaves presented no existential threat to slavery. For those in the North who didn’t quite know what to think about slavery, they were allowed to continue to exist in their state of uncertainty. Maybe slavery was good, maybe it was bad, but it was something that happened someplace else. They were not a part of it.

But that wasn’t enough for the South. The escaped slaves drove them crazy. Just like the 1.5% of California schoolchildren who have a philosophical or religious exemption. You see, most doctors claim that even if you believe in the mythical concept of “herd immunity”, it’s somewhere around 90-93%. I’m not a math teacher, but even if you take 1.5% away from 100%, I calculate it at 98.5%. Check my math to see if I’ve got it right.

Later, Heckenlively writes:

The fact is, those parents with philosophical or religious exemptions drive people like Senator Richard Pan and his pharmaceutical cronies absolutely nuts, just like escaped slaves drove their Southern masters crazy. Many people credit the Fugitive Slave laws as hastening the start of the Civil War and the end of slavery. By the very act by with which they attempted to gain complete control, they created a destabilizing force which wiped then from the face of the earth.

That’s right. Heckenlively is so delusional that he thinks antivaccine parents can be compared to slaves and that SB 277 is like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Even more insulting, he seriously argues that the reason for the Fugitive Slave Act was that slave owners couldn’t let it go because the existence of fugitive slaves “drove them crazy” when the motivation was more financial. They viewed those slaves as property that they wanted returned, and the older version of the Fugitive Slave Act had been weakened by non-slave states basically ignoring it; so a more Draconian version was passed that penalized heavily penalized officials who did not arrest a suspected fugitive slave. In brief, escaping slaves cost the South money and was seen as a danger to the viability of slavery as an economic system because large numbers of slaves were escaping to the north and not being returned. Heckenlively is, as usual, full of victim complex; so it’s not surprising he would view himself and fellow antivaccinationists as slaves being persecuted by “pharma slavemasters.”

I’ve always said that antivaccine zealots are their own worst enemies. I know it. My regular readers know it. Those dedicated souls who’ve worked to get SB 277 passed in California know it. Another salutary effect of the passage of SB 277 is that the rest of the country is coming to know it as well. If other states follow California’s lead, the reaction will be the same, only in more parts of the country.