The Mayor of Algonac responds to a hepatitis A outbreak by promoting antivaccine pseudoscience

Algonac Flaming Grill

A staff member of this restaurant caught hepatitis A in the ongoing outbreak in Michigan. The Mayor of Algonac, Eileen Tesch, decided to help by hosting an antivaccine event there. This is the kind of help that isn’t needed.

One of the things I like to do from time to time to set this blog apart (and also because it interests me) is to discuss happenings and news relevant to the major topics of this blog that are occurring in my neck of the woods. It’s the reason why, for instance, I’ve discussed the Flint water crisis on more than one occasion. It’s the reason why I’ve written about attempts by naturopaths to get their quackery licensed in my state.

Unfortunately, I’ve also has to write about outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in Michigan, grassroots efforts to increase vaccine uptake and the attempts of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) to combat them, the reaction of antivaccine activists to the efforts of MDHHS, and some seriously bone-headed bills the Republicans in the Michigan legislature have tried to pass. Despite these outbreaks, we in Michigan have had to endure invasions of antivaxers trying to persuade our scientifically clueless legislature to make it easier for parents to refuse vaccines for their children, thus facilitating outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, with Del Bigtree himself giving speeches about vaccines as though he were Patrick Henry speaking about throwing off the yoke of King George.

One of the lesser known vaccine-related stories going on in our state at the moment is a hepatitis A outbreak:

Hepatitis A has continued to spread in southeast Michigan with 319 confirmed cases between Aug. 1, 2016 and Sept. 15 — resulting in 14 deaths, state health officials announced Thursday.

The cases in Detroit and Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Monroe and St. Clair counties represent a 16-fold increase over the same period in 2014-15.

Eighty-one cases were diagnosed last month alone, compared with six reported to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in August 2016.

“The southeast Michigan hepatitis A outbreak remains a top priority for public health officials from both the investigation and prevention standpoints,” Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive for MDHHS, said in a press release Thursday.

“Hepatitis A is a vaccine-preventable disease and in addition to our investigation of current and new cases, our focus is strongly aimed at increasing vaccination in adults, where hepatitis A vaccination is commonly low.”

Hepatitis A is a vaccine-preventable disease, and the vaccine against hepatitis A is included in the CDC’s recommended vaccine schedule. However, most adults are not vaccinated against it because the vaccine was not approved for use in the US until 1995. The disease is spread through contaminated food and water, but can also be spread through person-to-person contact, such as illicit drug use, sexual activity, and other close contact. Worse, people infected with hepatitis A are infectious for two weeks before symptoms appear.

You might wonder at this point why I’m writing about our hepatitis A outbreak. The reason is that antivaxers never miss a chance to use an outbreak to try to further their message. This time around, I’m referring to Eileen Tesch, the Mayor of Algonac, a town on the Canadian border in the thumb region of Michigan. Here’s what she’s up to:

Algonac’s mayor is helping to facilitate a hepatitis A vaccine discussion at the restaurant where a worker was found to be infected with the illness last month.

St. Clair County health officials investigated the case in mid-October after a recent hire at the Algonac Flaming Grill went home sick. Several other hepatitis A cases have been identified in the county, and the county itself is one of several in the region affected by an outbreak.

Mayor Eileen Tesch said she was concerned that people who were at the restaurant over an eight-day period were encouraged to get vaccinated against the disease.

Uh-oh.

So let’s get this straight. Public health officials are doing what science and medicine dictate that they do in the middle of an outbreak: Work to get at-risk people vaccinated against the disease that is at the heart of the outbreak, in this case hepatitis A. This is not rocket science, as they say. If there is an outbreak of a disease like hepatitis A, then part of the strategy to control that outbreak is to vaccinate as many at-risk people as possible. That is what St. Clair County and Michigan public health officials are doing. That is what, apparently, Ms. Tesch is so “concerned” about this routine public health effort that she has decided to take action. She arranged a meeting at the Algonac Flaming Grill to promote her antivaccine viewpoint:

“People lined up for hours to receive the free hepatitis A vaccine,” she wrote in an emailed invitation. “More importantly, I’m concerned people were not adequately informed of the serious risks associated with (the) vaccine, how and where they were manufactured, how effective it is, and your rights if you should suffer a vaccine injury.”

“People lined up for hours to receive the free hepatitis A vaccine”? Gee, Ms. Tesch writes that as though it were a bad thing. I note that nearly 700 people were vaccinated as part of this campaign, and the restaurant management was fully supportive:

And:

And:

So the management of the Algonac Flaming Grill is clearly doing the right thing, cooperating with county health officials and getting their employees vaccinated. At this point, I can’t help but note that statewide there have, thus far, been 495 cases of hepatitis A, with 416 hospitalizations (84%), and 19 deaths (3.8%). that’s right, nearly 4% of the people who have contracted hepatitis A have died, and well over four out of five of them required hospitalization. This is serious business and a real public health problem.

In any case, the meeting occurred last night; thus far I haven’t been able to find any news accounts about it. What I could find was this:

Tesch said the event — slated from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday — at the Flaming Grill restaurant is meant to share information and to help draw customers back to the restaurant.

Although Tesch said the event isn’t necessarily meant to appear “anti-vaccine,” one of the people she has invited to speak is Amiee Nelson, a nurse with Michigan for Vaccine Choice, a group that lobbies against vaccinations. According to its website, the organization promotes information, including about rights and waivers, for making vaccination-related decisions.

The other expected speaker is chiropractor Eric Marshall.

Tesch said that although she is mayor, she was organizing the event as a concerned resident. She did, however, mention the event during Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

Lovely.

I took a look at Tesch’s Facebook page, and there I found abundant evidence that she has imbibed deeply of antivaccine pseudoscience, her claims that she is “not antivaccine” notwithstanding. For instance:

And:

Let’s just put it this way. Anyone who takes Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s crank views on vaccines the least bit seriously is arguably antivaccine. Don’t believe me? I could literally list dozens of examples, but a couple will do. These include RFK, Jr.’s meeting with Donald Trump, RFK, Jr.’s attacks on the CDC, and his penchant for referring to the “vaccine Holocaust.”

If you don’t believe me, then check this out:

Although Tesch said the event isn’t necessarily meant to appear “anti-vaccine,” one of the people she has invited to speak is Amiee Nelson, a nurse with Michigan for Vaccine Choice, a group that lobbies against vaccinations. According to its website, the organization promotes information, including about rights and waivers, for making vaccination-related decisions.

The other expected speaker is chiropractor Eric Marshall.

I’ve written about Michigan for Vaccine Choice, most recently when a local news station quoted Joel Dorfman, a representative from this antivaccine group, with what I referred to as a “blink and you’ll miss it” caption identifying him. I also noted that MVC was the group that hosted Del Bigtree in last year’s trip to try to influence Michigan legislators. Let’s just put it this way. MVC is antivaccine as antivaccine can be. If you want to get an idea, juist peruse MVC’s website. It’s chock full of antivaccine tropes, including what I like to call the “toxin gambit” (here), a PDF full of long-discredited antivaccine articles and studies by long discredited antivaxers (like Russell Blaylock), and a reading list featuring antivaccine propaganda by antivaccine activists that I’ve written about on multiple occasions, such as Dr. Robert Sears, Barbara Loe Fisher, Dan Olmstead, Mark Blaxill, Suzanne Humphries, and Louise Kuo Habakus.

As an aside, I can’t help but chuckle at MVC’s reaction to the above description of the organization:

No, I’d say Jackie Smith got it quite right. MVC is antivaccine, providing misinformation about vaccines and lobbying to make it easier for parents not to vaccinate. As for the chiropractor Eric Marshall, his website includes antivaccine chestnuts like:

The current US vaccine schedule requires 45 vaccines at 6 months of age; 64 at 18 months and at least 74 at 4-6 years!! There is no proof that a child’s immature immune system can handle this chemical assault.

Let’s just put it this way. Anyone who refers to the vaccine schedule as a “chemical assault” can safely be assumed to be antivaccine. I’ll leave out the other tropes about how infectious diseases are good for children, rants about pharma conspiracies, and the like. You get the idea. In case you don’t, here’s Mayor Tesch again:

Tesch said she was originally going to host the discussion at her home but wanted to support the restaurant. She said she had heard some blowback about the event, though most residents shared complaints in Facebook comments, which she hasn’t seen.

“I’m not taking a public stance on anything,” she said. “… I am freedom of choice. Once you have the information, you decide what you want to do. Free country. Personally, I don’t get vaccines. I don’t have any children. I don’t get any flu shots, I don’t take any medication. We’re a very pro-drug society. My husband, he’s a veterinarian. Every commercial (on TV) is about a drug. My husband says he does everything not to put the animals on drugs. One maybe.”

“No one’s taking a position, no one’s going to be getting into arguments,” Tesch added. “It’s just a discussion.”

In the invite email, which is also signed by her husband, Jim, Tesch alleged the health department only focused on one option — a tactic that with “negative” press she said also injected “unsubstantiated fear in the community.”

This is, of course, nonsense. The county health department utilized education, environmental inspections and cleanups, immune globulin, and vaccines. As is usually the case in public health, the intervention to stop the outbreak has been multidisciplinary and multimodality.

It’s not all bad here, though. For example, the local newspaper, The Times Herald, published an editorial lambasting Tesch for promoting antivaccination quackery, using exactly those words. Even better, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals just slapped down an antivaxer suing over the MDHHS rule requiring parents seeking a waiver for school vaccine mandates to go to the local county health office:

The Sixth Circuit upheld the dismissal Tuesday of a Michigan mom’s lawsuit alleging county health officials unconstitutionally attempted to keep her from obtaining a religious vaccination waiver for her children, finding the inconveniences she experienced did not amount to coercion against her exercising her religion.

A three-judge panel rejected Tara Nikolao’s contention that the state and Wayne County violated her First Amendment religious rights by forcing her to answer questions at the health department, and that nurses subsequently failed to properly describe her objection to vaccinations. The panel said Nikolao’s lawsuit lacked the requisite claim that she was forced to perform an act her religion prohibits.

The Sixth Circuit upheld the dismissal Tuesday of a Michigan mom’s lawsuit alleging county health officials unconstitutionally attempted to keep her from obtaining a religious vaccination waiver for her children, finding the inconveniences she experienced did not amount to coercion against her exercising her religion.

A three-judge panel rejected Tara Nikolao’s contention that the state and Wayne County violated her First Amendment religious rights by forcing her to answer questions at the health department, and that nurses subsequently failed to properly describe her objection to vaccinations. The panel said Nikolao’s lawsuit lacked the requisite claim that she was forced to perform an act her religion prohibits.

“While Nikolao has presented facts suggesting that she was exposed to religious information with which she did not agree, she has given no indication that the information coerced her into doing or not doing anything,” U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Fred Suhrheinrich wrote in the panel’s 12-page opinion. “Nikolao went to the [Wayne County Department of Health] to receive a vaccination exemption and left with one.”

Nikolao’s suit is a doozy. Apparently she was upset that the waiver she obtained didn’t specify her exact objection, which was that the body is considered a temple and she cannot use vaccines containing “‘moral problems,’ such as those created from aborted fetal cells.”

Parts of California and Arizona are arguably the epicenters of the antivaccine movement in the US, but we have them here in Michigan, too, and they are just as deluded and just as dangerous. This is particularly true when they are in political positions of power, such as mayor. Fortunately, Algonac is a small town of only around 4,000 people. Unfortunately, we have others with antivaccine proclivities.