Antivaxers go to Washington to lobby Rep. Jason Chaffetz to investigate the CDC

I sense a disturbance in the antivaccine force. I had meant to write about it the other day, but other things intervened. Really, there’s so much pseudoscience out there at times that on some days it’s hard to decide what to tackle, and sometimes I feel as though I’m writing about vaccines too much. However, this time around I felt as though I couldn’t ignore this one because it involves two highly annoying and fact-challenged antivaccine activists and an attempt to influence a Congressional Representative.

The annoying antivaccine activists are Del Bigtree, the producer of Andrew Wakefield’s antivaccine propaganda film VAXXED: From Cover-up to Catastrophe. whom we’ve met many times before. When last we encountered him, he and his new best bud Andrew Wakefield were acting as privileged white men as they spread antivaccine propaganda to African Americans living in Compton. This time around, he’s bragging about scoring a meeting with Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who is Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (OGR). Basically, that’s Dan Burton’s old committee, which he used to use to launch bogus “investigations” of the CDC over the now discredited idea that vaccines cause autism. Before Chaffetz, the chair of OGR was the profoundly antiscience Representative Darrell Issa (R-California), who, not coincidentally, accepted large campaign contributions from antivaccinationists.

So right off the bat, we’re dealing with a Congressional Committee whose track record with respect to medical has been from time to time—shall we say?—not exactly what it should be. In particular, antivaccine activists like to target this committee, because it can investigate the CDC. Now I bet those of you who’ve been regular readers for a while will be able to guess what’s coming. What was the movie VAXXED about? In large part, it’s about the conspiracy theory known as the “CDC whistleblower,” a.k.a. William Thompson, a CDC scientist who made the profound mistake of unburdening his beef with the CDC onto Brian Hooker, a biochemical engineer turned incompetent epidemiologist. Hooker “reanalyzed” the data from a 2004 CDC paper by Frank DeStefano et al on which Thompson was co-author that failed to find a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Grossly misusing statistics and doing an incorrect analysis, Hooker claimed to “prove” that the MMR vaccine was associated with a 4-fold increased risk of autism in African-American males. Unfortunately for Thompson, Hooker recorded their conversations and blabbed to Andrew Wakefield, who outed Thompson, even though in reality even Hooker’s analysis actually proved Wakefield wrong, except for an almost certainly spurious association in a small subgroup.

From there, the conspiracy theory spiraled out of control, becoming in essence the central organizing conspiracy theory of the antivaccination movement, mainly because it seemed to confirm that the CDC had “smoking gun” evidence of a conspiracy by the CDC to cover up a link between vaccines and autism. Flowing from the “CDC whistleblower,” there have been attempts to get Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) to push for an investigation, protests at the CDC, scattered news reports, and, of course VAXXED.

Now, Del Bigtree has teamed up with Levi Quackenboss, the woman who tried to dox a 12-year-old boy, to lobby Jason Chaffetz. Hilariously, the third member of the trio was Tami Canal, the founder of March Against Monsanto. So, yes, two antivaccinationists, one a pseudonymous blogger who thinks nothing of attacking 12-year-old boys, the other a new convert to the cause who is not exactly the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, and an anti-GM) activists met with Jason Chaffetz, as Bigtree announced late last week:

Poor Bigtree. He loves it that “progressives” like him are anti-GMO but can’t figure out why they are not antivaccine like him. Personally, for me it’s the other way around. It annoys the hell out of me that “progressives” seem to dominate the anti-GMO movement, even if they don’t do it completely. (Chuck Norris, for instance, is about as conservative a wingnut as they come, and he’s anti-GMO.) Be that as it may, we actually learn from Bigtree that other “heavy hitters” in the world of antivaccine loons were there, too, including Mark Blaxill and Jennifer Larson plus some who wanted to remain anonymous. (I wonder why.)

Afterward, Bigtree posted a “debriefing”:

I was actually concerned to learn that the meeting lasted an hour and a half, which is a lot more time than most advocacy groups are usually allowed with a Representative as powerful as Jason Chaffetz is. It does make me worry that we have another Dan Burton in the making, but time will tell. Particularly annoying is how Bigtree and Quackenboss promote an air of mystery, with Bigtree “revealing” that there is an investigation of the CDC by OGR, claiming that the agreement was that he couldn’t say much of anything, so that Chaffetz could speak freely. Quackenboss agrees, although leave it to antivaxers to be jerks to a powerful Congressman:

Chaffetz came in at 1:35. We started to do introductions and honestly, there was a wee bit of hostility from some of our members because we’re sitting there with the impression that the OGR hasn’t done jack for nearly two years now, so Chaffetz had to walk into that. Some of us introduced ourselves and when it got to Del, Del just started talking. He gave the history of Vaxxed, how he got pulled into it, and took Chaffetz through the timeline of it getting kicked out of Tribeca and going nuclear.

Del said that in the fall of 2014 when the Whistleblower story was never reported that it made him question the state of democracy. It would have been one thing to have the media address it and dismiss it, but no one said a word. It’s a sad statement to who is running the news in this country.

There was a huge smile from Chaffetz when Del commended him on how brave his staffer was to stand up in Utah, announce herself, and take questions from the crowd at their Vaxxed Q&A. He knows how to make a boss feel proud.

Chaffetz is obviously a politician and disarmed his audience. Bigtree claims that the official statement by Chaffetz is, “You have my attention.” Whether that’s true or not, who knows? Perhaps we could get some reporters to start calling Chaffetz’s office to ask for an actual official statement, rather than one filtered through someone as unreliable as Bigtree. Of course, it actually doesn’t surprise me that Chaffetz might be susceptible to the blandishments of the antivaccine movement, because Chaffetz is from Utah, and because he is from Utah he is in the pocket of the supplement industry, along with Orrin Hatch. Indeed, he has been co-chair of the Dietary Supplement Caucus and has supported bills to weaken the FDA’s already weak power to regulate supplements.

So what did Bigtree and his clown car full of pseudoscientists want from Chaffetz? This:

Chaffetz asked what we wanted to see happen beyond a Thompson hearing and this was our wish list.

One: that the power to police vaccine safety is taken away from the CDC.

Two: That the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act is repealed and pharmaceutical companies are responsible for the safety of their products.

Three: That the vaccinated vs. unvaccinated total health outcome study (Congressman Posey’s HR 1636) is conducted.

I’m surprised that their number one wish wasn’t to repeal the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act. Remember, there were lawyers in the meeting, presumably lawyers who represent parents who think that vaccines caused their children’s autism and represent them in front of the Vaccine Court. As I mentioned recently, these lawyers hate the Vaccine Court. It doesn’t matter that the Vaccine Court requires a lower bar of evidence, is more likely to pay out than regular courts, and even pays the legal fees of complainants. That’s not enough for antivaccine lawyers, who want to sue vaccine manufacturers for huge payouts on the fantastical claim that vaccines cause autism. Sure, most of them will lose, but, our court system being what it is, eventually one of them would likely get a positive verdict.

Quackenboss elaborates on #1 in a followup post:

The most realistic request of a legislative fix is that the government creates a new agency that oversees vaccine safety, and they do it by taking money out of the CDC vaccine safety budget and give it to the new agency so that we’re not creating any debt. Win-win, right? What sane person would be opposed to creating an independent agency to make sure vaccines are safe, and doing it without expanding the budget? Get vaccine safety out of the Immunization Safety Office out of the CDC and create a National Vaccine Safety Board as an independent federal agency charged by Congress to investigate vaccine injury. It goes without saying that any CDC, FDA, or pharmaceutical employees stockholders or lobbyists are not invited to join the board.

Quackenboss really is living in a fantasy world, isn’t she? She thinks that starting a new bureaucracy is cheap and easy and could be done just for the cost of what the CDC already spends on these functions. However, the CDC has been tracking vaccine safety for decades. It has the infrastructure. It has the expertise. It has the personnel. Under Quackenboss’ fantasy, there’d be a new federal bureaucracy, and she thinks it could be set up without significant startup costs and a huge learning curve. For what purpose? It is an article of faith among antivaccine activists that the CDC is hopelessly compromised by pharmaceutical company influence. It’s a massive exaggeration. No one is saying that the CDC is perfect or that it doesn’t screw up from time to time. It’s an organization composed of human beings. By and large, though, it works, and this is definitely a case of, “If it works, don’t fix it.” Besides, any “independent” new bureaucracy, if truly independent and consisting of experts with the relevant skills and knowledge, would soon conclude that vaccines don’t cause autism, just as the CDC has long ago. Then there’d be new conspiracies to concoct.

Next up, Quackenboss invokes a classic antivaccine canard:

The second most realistic legislative fix is that we finally conduct a large-scale vaccinated vs. unvaccinated study in this country. The CDC already has all of the data; we just need the funding and a trusted independent epidemiologist to conduct the study across all health outcomes– allergies, asthma, ADD/ADHD, eczema, juvenile diabetes, epilepsy, immune deficiency, pediatric cancer, gastrointestinal illness– not just autism.

No, no, no. As I like to say, it’s so cute when antivaccinationists try to do epidemiology. Suffice to say, doing a randomized controlled clinical trial of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children would be incredibly unethical because it would leave one group exposed to vaccine-preventable diseases. It’s so unethical that even antivaxers don’t propose such a study any more, hence Quackenboss’ reference to the CDC already having “all of the data.” Whether that’s true or not (and it’s probably not), what Quackenboss seems not to realize, though, is that doing an epidemiological study would have very limited power unless it were very huge and very expensive—it might even be impossible to do—and, of course, antivaccinationists wouldn’t believe a negative result anyway. There’s plenty of evidence to conclude that vaccines don’t cause autism, as well, to the point where we can say with about as much confidence as we can about any question of epidemiology that there is no association between vaccination and autism or any of the many conditions and diseases blamed on vaccines.

Not surprisingly, Quackenboss is all on board with repealing the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, but since I discussed that already in the context of discussing Del Bigtree’s demands, I’ll move on. Instead, let’s take a look at what Quackenboss fantasizes about:

My personal dream legislative fix that we did not discuss in the meeting would be to overhaul the CDC childhood vaccination schedule. I want hepatitis b on day one of life taken off and be reserved for hep b positive mothers. If you want your kid to have this vaccine, get it when they’re 12. I want the rotavirus vaccine to disappear from this country. I want flu vaccines to go to the incinerater, but I’d accept flu vaccines being banned from pregnant mothers and children under three years old. I want true zero mercury. I want the vaccine schedule to begin after 6 months old and I want it spread out with one vaccine every 60 days with no 5-in-1 shots. I want routine vitamin k shots to go away and only be used in traumatic births or on parents’ request. And I want expanded contraindications to vaccination, with autism, epilepsy, juvenile diabetes and food allergies leading the list.

So let me get this straight. Quackenboss doesn’t want babies protected against hepatitis B until they’re 12 because she apparently thinks it’s only a sexually transmitted disease. It’s not. It’s spread through the bodily fluids of the infected, and many who become infected become infected by their chronically infected mothers at birth, and studies also indicate that the long-term chronic health issues related to this virus, such as liver failure, cirrhosis, and liver cancer, are directly related to when a person is first infected. The hepatitis B vaccine is not a “lifestyle” vaccine.

Let’s see. What else? Rotavirus is a major cause of diarrheal illness world wide, particularly in Third World countries, but apparently Quackenboss doesn’t think it’s needed here, or at least not where she lives. Before the vaccine, though, rotaviral disease lead to 20-60 deaths a year, 55,000 to 70,000 hospitalizations, 200,000 ER visits, and 400,000 doctors visits. Apparently, she wants a financial windfall for doctors and hospitals taking care of all these sick kids again. Apparently Quackenboss doesn’t care how many die of the flu, and she wants to leave children unprotected against vaccine-preventable diseases longer while increasing the number of unvaccinated children by coming up with all sorts of BS “contraindications” to vaccination that are medically not contraindications. And don’t even get me started on vitamin K shots, which save lives? Why on earth are antivaccine quacks so frequently also against neonatal vitamin K shots. Unfortunately, there’s a strong correlation between being antivaccine and vitamin K refusal.

In any case, this is what Quackenboss wants her fellow antivaccine “warriors” to do:

I’ll put a list of phone numbers and addresses for the other 42 congressmen/women on the Oversight Committee at the end of this entry. The phone calls fanned out to them should:

#1 educate the committee member’s staff who answers the phone about the fact that the CDC Whistleblower exists and there is an ongoing Oversight Committee investigation that they likely don’t even know about; and

#2 ask what each Congressman can do to demand that the CDC comply with the document requests.

Leave your name and your phone number and ask to be called back. You might not even be considered for a callback if you don’t live in their district, so adjust your expectations, but you never know.

If you live in the district of the congressman you’re calling and you have a “voting bloc” you lead of people who have this common interest, make sure you tell them that in the message and ask for a call back. To say you have a voting bloc has no meaning, really, but if you’ve got a blog following of 50k+ vaccine freedom readers I’d mention it on the phone. Find your own congressman by clicking here.

Then get out some paper, pen, envelope and a stamp. I know it’s been a while since we’ve used those things– I don’t even know where I’d find an envelope in my house. In fact, include a self-addressed stamped envelope in your letter and tell them you want answers, not a form letter, returned to you.

On the paper, repeat steps 1 and 2 above in a handwritten letter. Then also:

#3 educate the members about what vaccine injury looks like, how it’s anything but rare, and include your personal story if you have one or send them to hearthiswell.org; and

#4 tell each Congressman what the legislative fix you want to see is.

I’m not sure why Quackenboss thinks a handwritten letter is going to be more effective than a typed letter, which, unlike a lot of people’s handwriting (including mine), has the advantage of being easily legible. Personally, I’d suggest that they all write their letters in crayon. It’d be more appropriate for their message.

Be that as it may, antivaccinationists are laying down a full court press, at least as much as they think they can. Rep. Chaffetz might be receptive to their message because he represents the State of Utah, which is the center of supplement manufacturing in this country, and all major politicians from Utah are basically in the pocket of its supplement industry. Is this for real? Many skeptics dismiss the possibility, and I was tempted to do so at first myself. I still think it unlikely that anything will come of this, at least not in the middle of an election year. However, given Chaffetz’s antiscience leanings towards climate science and his connection to the supplement industry, I wouldn’t put it past him to actually investigate. On the other hand, he could just be being a politician, telling a constituent group what it wants to hear without any intention of doing anything more than a perfunctory investigation because he knows he’s dealing with cranks.

Time will tell.