Jeff Noble and Kerry Bentivolio host a “vaccine choice” (antivaccine) roundtable at a local Republican office

For some reason, the last two or three weeks have been rather slow in clinic and the operating room, and the nearest grant deadline is two months away. What that means is that occasionally there’s a day when I can come home early. Yesterday was just such a day. When I got home, however, I was greeted by a link sent to me by one of my readers to an event that was scheduled for 7 PM to be held a mere 15 minute ride away from my house. It was billed as a round table on vaccine choice, and it was hosted by Kerry Bentivolio, one of the Republican candidates for the nomination for Michigan’s 11th district, where I reside. Moreover, my state representative, Jeff Noble, was slated to be one of the panelists:

Please join us for a discussion on vaccine choice—what is it (and isn’t) and why is it important. Our goal is to bring awareness from clinical, legal & moral angles with our panel and encourage open, respectful dialogue about this important and complex issue. Doors open at 6:30pm.

Our panel includes:
“A nurse’s perspective: current culture and informed consent” with Amie Kremer, a NICU registered nurse and clinical nursing instructor at WSU

“How vaccines impact health: a clinical perspective” with Gretchen Perry-Emery M.S.N., F.N.P.-B.C., N.P.-C.​​

“Vaccine injury—a parent’s story,” with Dave McDowell, father to vaccine injured triplets and Michigan for Vaccine Choice activist

“State legislative briefing” Representative Jeff Noble

“Addressing vaccine choice at the federal level” Kerry Bentivolio, member 113th Congress

Q & A

This piqued my interest. I thought about going, but hesitated because I had only had two hours’ notice and hadn’t had dinner yet. Also, the thought of showing up at a roundtable that was likely to be attended by a lot of die-hard antivaxers was not appealling to me. On the other hand, I was enraged to see a nurse slated to appear at the event who is a clinical nursing instructor at the university where I am faculty, Wayne State University. Now, I know that clinical instructors are generally unpaid adjunct-like faculty who teach nursing students at local hospitals where nurses do their clinical rotations. (It’s the same thing with clinical faculty for medical schools who teach medical students.) Even so, it disturbed me greatly that this was not just a nurse, but a neonatal ICU nurse, and, worse than that, associated with my institution, even if only as clinical faculty. I also couldn’t help but notice that nowhere did the notice say what hospital she worked at.

Then there was another nurse, except that she was an advanced practice nurse, or, as they are more commonly called, a nurse practitioner. Longtime readers know that I’m a big fan of NPs and have spoken up for them in response to turf war-inspired attacks by my fellow physicians, which is why it disappoints me to see one so deep into woo.

I must admit that I hadn’t heard of Dave McDowell before this. However, I wasn’t surprised that a parent who thought his child had been injured by vaccines would be on the panel. What antivaccine panel would be complete without such a parent? The main twist here was one I hadn’t heard before: McDowell, I learned, claimed that his triplets were all vaccine-injured.

As for Kerry Bentivolio, a former schoolteacher and reindeer rancher, as well as an actor in extremely low budget movies, he was always a strange bird and very right wing. Elected to Congress representing my very gerrymandered district in 2012, he only lasted one term. He had actually truly been an “accidental Congressman,” having managed to take advantage of an open seat left by Thaddeus McCotter when McCotter resigned during the 2012 campaign and he was the only Republican challenger for the nomination on the ballot. In any event, he was defeated in 2014 by Dave Trott for the Republican nomination. Now he’s running again.

Then, of course, Jeff Noble is my state representative. I’ve written about him before in the context of his sponsoring a “vaccine freedom” bill designed to gut the state’s requirement that parents seeking personal belief and a bill to provide “informed consent” about “fetal parts” in vaccines. Yes, between Jeff Noble and Patrick Colbeck (my state senator who, because he’s term-limited, is now running for governor), who has been antivaccine-sympathetic if not outright antivaccine ever since I first encountered him, I’ve been really unlucky in terms of my state representation.

Ultimately, I decided to go. Again, lucky for me, I haven’t been that busy the last couple of weeks. Unlucky for Bentivolio and Noble, I haven’t been that busy.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this

I got in my car and headed to where the round table would be held. I knew the area well, because it was less than three miles from where I had grown up after my parents’ move to the suburbs when I was 10. The Livonia Victory Center sits in a near-empty strip mall that looks as though it dates back to the 1970s next to the abandoned, decaying hulk of an old K-Mart that I remember shopping at when I was a teenager. I didn’t remember if that strip mall was there when I used to frequent this K-Mart, but I suspect that it probably was. Either way, I suspect there’s a metaphor in the location somewhere.

In any event, the Livonia Victory Center is a Republican office “dedicated to helping elect Republican candidates in the state of Michigan” and serves as a “gathering place for like-minded conservative activists.” The office provided seating for up to maybe 100-150 people, and, once the event finally started, I estimated that roughly 60 people were in attendance, maybe 75, tops. It was actually more than I had expected. Indeed, I had worried that so few would be in attendance that it would be hard for me to keep a low profile. After all, my intent was not to draw attention to myself or argue. It was to observe, and observe I did.

As I approached the entrance, I was greeted by Kerry Bentivolio himself:

Right at the entrance was a table where we were asked to sign in. I was a little worried that a local antivaxer might recognize my name, but it turns out that there was nothing to worry about. I was half tempted to use the email for this blog ([email protected]) as the email that I used to sign in, but I decided not to be so bold. (In retrospect, I should have used that address as my calling card.) Instead I used my throwaway address and my Google Voice phone number. As a result, I’m sure I’ll soon be getting all sorts of emails from Bentivolio’s campaign, local Michigan antivaccine groups, etc. Particularly telling was a sign that informed me that audio and video recording was forbidden without seeking permission from the organizer.

After signing in, I wandered around. There was a lot of literature for pretty much every candidate running for the Republican nomination for state and local offices that encompass Livonia and surrounding environs. There were life-sized standups of Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, and Donald Trump, all standing side by side. There was a huge “Support our troops” sign. There were tables with refreshments. I grabbed a bottled water and some of the literature for later perusal and looked for a seat.

Gifts Chemtrail Guy gave me

Gifts Chemtrail Guy gave me.

Upon sitting down, I almost immediately encountered an older man holding court about chemtrails and how US money isn’t really money at all. (Yes, I recognized sovereign citizen conspiracy nonense when I heard it.) Just my luck, Chemtrail Guy sat down in the row in front of me and kept trying to engage me and those around me with his knowledge about chemtrails and currency. He claimed he knew someone in Army Intelligence who had confirmed to him that chemtrails are real, and he claimed to have debated a professor of economics about his claim that US currency isn’t real currency. Chemtrail Guy was amiable enough, but, even given how amiable he was, I could tell that even the antivaxers around us were growing a little impatient with him given how he perseverated.

Fortunately for everyone, the event started. Even more fortunately, I soon learned that the whole talk would be on Facebook Live, which meant that I didn’t have to worry about secretly recording the audio with my iPhone or sending out Tweets and emails in a building with absolutely horrible cell service (at least on my provider’s network). On the other hand, I kicked myself. I could have stayed home and just watched the video on FB Live. Of course, if I had done that I would have missed out on the amusement that Chemtrail Guy provided.

And here it is, in all its “glory”:

I’ve also downloaded the video, in case the Bentivolio campaign decides to take it down. Unfortunately, it’s not complete. It’s missing the last 10-15 minutes or so. I think that what happened was that the iPhone being used to record the panel discussion ran out of juice. Unfortunately, that meant missing much of the Q&A session, which was utterly bonkers.

The antivaccine tropes begin: Amie Kremer

The panel began with introductions of each panelist. Kerry Bentivolio started by telling his story of vaccine “skepticism.” According to him, when he was in Iraq, he was responsible for seeing that all the soliders in his unit received the anthrax vaccine, and he first became interested in the issue when a soldier asked for a waiver. I’ll go into that more later. Bentivolio also claims that he attended recent court cases in which parents engaged in a custody battle who were fighting over whether their child should be vaccinated or not. Lovely.

Amie Kremer kicked the whole thing off by talking about “informed consent” and the culture of informed consent when it comes to vaccines. Yes, regular readers will recognize right away that this is the antivaccine trope that I like to refer to as “misinformed consent.” The idea is to misrepresent informed consent as requiring that parents be informed of all sorts of fantastical “risks” of vaccines that science does not support. Not surprisingly, Kremer doesn’t think that informed consent is done well. She also expressed great unhappiness about the fact that “we give vaccines to premature babies,” and that’s part of her job as a neonatal nurse. She even invoked what I like to refer to as the “appeal to the package insert.” Here’s the thing. Package inserts are legal, not scientific or medical documents. They are the ultimate in “CYA” in that they include every adverse event observed in every clinical trial used to approve the vaccine, whether or not anyone thinks those issues had anything to do with the vaccine itself. Doctors and scientists know that most of these issues are not due to vaccines, but antivaxers frequently do their best to make it sound as though they are. Hilariously, she even notes that there is rubber latex in the stopper used for the hepatitis B vaccine. (Yes, I do shudder to mention this, knowing the annoyance it could potentially launch in the comments. Let’s just say, I plan to shut that shit down.)

Kremer was careful not to go too far off the deep end, at least initially. However, she couldn’t restrain herself. Eventually she brought up the issue of “aborted fetal cells,” a favorite trope of fundamentalist antivaxers. Yes, two of the cell lines used to make some vaccines were derived from fetuses well over 50 years ago. However, the connection between the fetal origin of these cells and the actual cells used now is so distant that even the Catholic Church is OK with using vaccines for which the virus is grown in these cells. Kremer even went so far as to ask, “How do Christians, Muslims. or Jews feel about knowingly injecting aborted fetal cells into their child?” Of course, unless Kremer is a blithering idiot, surely she must know that no such thing is happening. “Fetal cells” are not being injected into babies. Or maybe she is a blithering idiot. Unfortunately, she was a pretty good presenter. Also, does anyone really believe that she cares about anyone other than fundamentalist Christians when it comes to “aborted fetal cells”?

I’m still miffed that the nursing school at my university allows this woman to teach nursing students.

The antivaccine tropes continue: Gretchen Perry-Emery

Next up was Gretchen Perry-Emery. She’s a functional medicine quack. I also note that she got her advanced practice nursing degree from Walden University, which offers online APN degrees. Given that my wife is an APN, I know that the problem with these programs is that, even if their didactic teaching is acceptable, they often leave it up to the student to find clinical rotations. In any event, Perry-Emery’s practice is a typical functional medicine practice in that it uses all the buzzwords we expect from functional medicine:

Gretchen approaches healing from a holistic perspective, using minimally invasive approaches and biomedical modalities first. She is persistent and inquisitive in the identification of root causes, and possesses a solid knowledge of functional medicine, nutrigenomics, epigenetics, overriding SNPs of methylation/detoxification pathways, the use of pharmaceutical grade supplements and compounded pharmaceuticals to treat dis-ease. Gretchen is dedicated to bringing wellness naturally to patients, and is excited to help those who have lost hope find it again, through the art of holistic healing- based on a Functional Medicine paradigm.

Perusing her practice’s website, I see that it’s basically her, plus a physician who oversees her prescribing authority. (I wondered: Doesn’t Perry-Emery know that Michigan recently passed a law unshackling NPs from an overseeing physician for prescriptions?) In any case, this doctor, Laina Feinstein, MD, boasts internal medicine and medical acupuncture, osteopathy (her husband is part of the practice and a DO), wrinkle reduction, and a quack device designed to detect acupuncture meridians through measuring the skin’s electrical resistance.

Perry-Emery apparently suffered a needlestick back in the 1990s, and says that, as a result, she got “a lot of injections.” She also claims that she suffered seizures. Only years later did she “connect the dots” and conclude that those injections had something to do with her seizures. Since then, she’s indulged in the ultimate in confirmation bias, saying that she often notices that her patients’ deterioration in health seems to happen after they receive vaccines. Why is it that I’m not surprised?

She is also very unduly impressed by a book called Vaccines and Autoimmunity. Guess who the editors are? Yes, it’s a book by Yehuda Shoenfeld, who invented the ASIA syndrome without evidence, and, of course, Lucija Tomljenovic, whose understanding of vaccines is, at best, weak. Hilariously, she invokes the gambit of the dreaded fetal DNA. I had to restrain myself from laughing (and giving the game away) when she opined about the problem of having “fetal DNA” from a female being injected into a male baby or “fetal DNA” from a male being injected into a female. Whatever will happen, she wondered? Also, according to her you have to check the patient’s methylation profile and prevent the burdens of “toxins” from just living or the even more added burden of “toxins” from vaccines.

Not surprisingly, Perry-Emery belongs to Physicians for Informed Consent. I haven’t written about this group before, but I will at some point. Suffice to say that it’s a group dedicated to the idea of misinformed consent. Of course, she presented a non-falsifiable hypothesis in that she said it’s not necessarily “just vaccines” causing autism, autoimmune diseases, chronic diseases, and all manner of problems. According to here it could be vaccines plus all the other nastiness in the air, water, soil, and food that is the real cause of autism, autoimmune disease, and, well, everything. Not surprisingly, Perry-Emery’s blog is full of what you would expect from functional medicine quackery, autism “triggers” due to “metabolic dysfunction,” the “dangers of glyphosate,” chronic Lyme disease, and more. Remember, functional medicine is quackery that combines the worst of both worlds, the excessive testing and overtreatment of conventional medicine with the quackery and pseudoscience of alternative medicine. Also not surprisingly, there’s a lot of antivaccine nonsense believed by many functional medicine practitioners.

Finally, I really, really, really had to restrain myself when Perry-Emery started claiming that herd immunity does not exist, that it’s a myth. (Wrong. Small declines in vaccine rates wouldn’t result in big increase in disease frequency if herd immunity wasn’t a real phenomenon.) This was, of course, a case of being so wrong that she’s not even wrong. It was at this point that I wanted to blow my cover, jump up, and yell at her, “Are you serious? You have no clue what the hell you’re talking about!” Fortunately, I restrained myself. Barely.

Perry-Emery concluded by saying that parents have a choice: Follow the CDC/AAP schedule, delay some vaccines, personalize the vaccine schedule, or don’t vaccinate. I say: Just vaccinate, unless you have a medical contraindication.

Vaccine mega-“injury”: Dave McDowell and his triplets

Any antivaccine panel would be incomplete without a parent who thinks his or her children are “vaccine-injured.” That brings us to Dave McDowell, a local Michigan man who thinks that his children, triplets, were all vaccine-injured. This part of the proceedings, I must admit, was the hardest to follow. McDowell told a story of his children all being normal in the morning of one day (June 25, 2007) and going to their not recognizing him when he came home from work in the evening. What happened? I didn’t really learn anything from what he said at this panel discussion. His anecdote was not clear, and I didn’t even realize from it until near the end that his claim was that all of his children regressed on the same day after a trip to the pediatrician for vaccines. So I did some searching, having heard that McDowell said that he had told his story to the VAXXED crew:

In this version of events, the parents blame the pneumococcal vaccine, which the triplets received that day. In the video above and in this post, Brenda McDowell describes a scene in which her children received their shots at 10 AM on 6/27/2007 and by noon her children had started to “shut down.” First it was their daughter Claire, who was described as “completely shut off, as if she was blind and deaf” and just “staring at the ceiling.” Then by 2 PM the sons started to “shut down” as well, first Richie, then Robbie, who, by the end of the day “looked like he was hit by a bus, he had a stunned look on his face.” Both emphasized that Claire “still has the mark on her leg” from the shot, which strikes me as highly unusual. At the Bentivolio event, Dave McDowell gave a much abbreviated version of the story, blamed the pneumococcal vaccine for what happened to their children, and expressed his displeasure with Jimmy Kimmel for his routine a couple of years ago in which doctors said in no uncertain terms that vaccines don’t cause autism.

I also note that the McDowells’ story was featured in a open letter by Dr. Rachael Ross, who, as you might remember, was featured in VAXXED as a convert to the antivaccine cause. I also can’t help but raise an eyebrow at how in her “mea culpa” letter she mentions the McDowell triplets and describes Brenda McDowell as a “very attractive white woman with years added onto her face and her smile”—why does it matter if she’s white?—and be disturbed by Ms. McDowell’s language, which was so reminiscent of antivaccine language, in which she is reported to have said that it was “as if someone replaced her children with new ones.” Yes, the McDowell’s narrative is steeped in the “lost child” and “not my real child” imagery of the antivaccine movement. Indeed, in the video, Brenda McDowell describes spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to “recover them” and how “the only person we got back was Robbie,” the one who “was last to shut off.”

Overall, the story as related at the Bentivolio event by Dave McDowell sounded a bit fishy, and watching the VAXXED video and reading posts about them didn’t make it sound better. It’s likely a combination of confirmation bias and missing earlier signs (which is very, very common among parents relating stories of sudden regression). For my purpose here, it doesn’t matter. They believe that the pneumococcal vaccine “took away” their triplets all on the same day. Apparently they were told that the pneumococcal vaccine was “contaminated” and blame that for their children’s autism. This was related by David McDowell at the event and by his wife in the video. I presume they meant this recall from 2007, which was done out of an excess of caution. Basically Merck had detected a sterility problem in one of its factories and, even though the vaccines they tested from the lots recalled were not contaminated, recalled the lots anyway because they couldn’t assure sterility of every vaccine vial in the lots.

It’s impossible to know what really happened to the McDowell triplets. Their story is dramatic, but it bears the hallmarks of increasing certainty with repetition. As we all know, confirmation bias is a powerful thing, particularly when it involves one’s children. What I do know is that the evidence is very clear that vaccines are not associated with an increased risk of autism. It is very unfortunate that Bentivolio chose to include Mr. McDowell in his little “vaccine choice” penal, because it guaranteed that emotions would win over science.

Jeff Noble: I don’t want to protect unvaccinated children during outbreaks

Up next was my state representative Jeff Noble. He’s a pastor at a local evangelical church and very conservative, spouting the usual small government platitudes that such politicians love to repeat. He started out by saying that children are a gift from God and that God gave the parents the responsibility of deciding what’s best for them. He pulled out the old trope about how supposedly parents know more about what’s best for their children than doctors or the state, a trope that is obviously incorrect in the case of antivaccine parents. Like Rand Paul, he spouted a bunch of rhetoric about parental rights, how the government shouldn’t be interfering with that choice, and how whether or not to be vaccinate their children should absolutely be only the parents’ choice with “informed consent.”

Rep. Noble, of course, is not happy about the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ requirement that parents seeking a personal belief exemption have to go to a local county health office and listen to an educational presentation and that they use a specific form. He described this as making parents “jump through all kinds of hoops.” (Good! Parents not wanting to vaccinate their children should, at the very least, be required to jump through a lot of hoops to accomplish that!) Then he went on a nostalgia kick about how, when he was a kid, he got the measles, the mumps, etc., and “we just dealt with it.” (I bet he got the polio and smallpox vaccines. Just sayin’.) Also, to remind you, Rep. Noble was co-sponsor of a bill that would have, if passed, eliminated the MDHHS’s authority to require parents to attend this educational presentation. It didn’t pass, but he’s at it again, assuring the audience that the bill is in committee and lamenting that he couldn’t get it to the floor before the summer recess. (Yes, horrifyingly, Rep. Noble sits on the Michigan House Health Policy Committee.) That’s not all, though. As I mentioned before, he’s co-sponsor of a bill to require “informed consent” about “fetal parts” in vaccines.

What most infuriated me about this panel wasn’t so much Rep. Noble’s invocation of “freedom” and “small government” coupled with broadsides at the government bureaucracy (always a crowd-pleaser among Republican voters ever since I was but a child) in the service of “vaccine freedom.” That’s pretty run-of-the-mill for politicians who’ve confused freedom from responsibility with freedom. No, what irked me was something I’ve discussed before, namely his desire to make measles great again in Michigan. Of course, that’s not how he put it, but that would be the effect. Basically, Rep. Noble appears to be very passionate about eliminating local health officials and physicians’ authority to pull unvaccinated children out of school in the event of an outbreak or if it is suspected that an unvaccinated child has been exposed to a vaccine-preventable disease, viewing this power as a horrible affront to parental rights and harmful to unvaccinated children. I kid you not.

Jeff Noble

Jeff Noble explains why he thinks that empowering health officials and doctors to keep unvaccinated children out of school during an outbreak is an intolerable affront to liberty.

My mouth dropped as I listened to him go on about this, bringing up the example of a straight-A student who’s terrified that she’ll be pulled out of school if there’s a case of measles or other vaccine-preventable disease in her school because her having to stay home for up to 21 days would endanger her perfect GPA. Why, asked Rep. Noble, if this unvaccinated child is perfectly healthy, should she be kept out of school if a student there was diagnosed with a vaccine-preventable disease? I wanted to leap up and shout, “You flunk Epi 101!” but wisely restrained myself. Of course, the reason you exclude unvaccinated children from school in the event of an outbreak or cases of a vaccine-preventable disease for the incubation period of the disease is to protect them and the other students because they are much more susceptible to the disease than the vaccinated children and therefore much more likely to get it—and much more likely to pass it on. Rep. Noble’s ignorance on this topic is epic. I also can’t help but note that, if this bill were to pass into law, it would make Michigan the only state handcuffing local health officials when it comes to deciding to exclude unvaccinated children from school in the event of outbreaks. What happened to local control, given that this law would put such decisions in the hands of the state through the MDHHS? Apparently, local control is fine for “small government” conservatives, except when they disagree with what is done with that control.

Later on, this topic revealed an ugly strain. I don’t know if Rep. Noble thinks this way (I hope not), but in the Q&A session a woman got up and ranted about this very topic, asking why we don’t worry about children with HIV and hepatitis B, and require them to go to school rather than excluding them. I wanted to explain the difference to her, but, again, wisely restrained myself. As the woman was going on and on about this, I heard women nearby murmuring their horror that children with AIDS were being allowed in school when unvaccinated children were being excluded and approval of what the woman was saying.

Kerry Bentivolio

Kerry Bentivolio holds court. Chemtrail Guy’s arm is in the lower right hand corner

Kerry Bentivolio: I’ll reform the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986!

Last up was Kerry Bentivolio. I’m not going to spend much verbiage on him because he is truly a fringe candidate, but his central promise was that he was going to “reform” the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 and basically eliminate the Vaccine Court. I couldn’t help but chuckle ironically as such an über-conservative said this, because apparently Bentivolio doesn’t realize that eliminating the Vaccine Court is one of the fondest wishes of trial lawyers who want to sue big pharmaceutical companies. The reason is that the Vaccine Court, although it pays complainants’ legal fees and reasonable expenses and has a pretty liberal evidentiary standard, rarely pays eye-popping settlements. These lawyers don’t want to make just hourly fees; they want a nice fat 30% cut of huge judgments on contingency.

In any event, there was much murmuring of approval from the crowd. As they had been doing periodically for the whole session, several women seated behind me kept repeating, “Amen!”

As I said, I’m not very worried about Bentivolio. He’s not going to be the Republican nominee for my Congressional district. However, since the rise of Donald Trump, his strain of the Republican Party is in ascendance, and this crowd showed that definitively. Indeed, I can’t help but take note of an off-the-cuff remark by Rep. Noble in the Q&A in which he mentioned that the Republicans on the Health Policy Committee are the only ones receptive to vaccine choice initiatives, while the Democrats won’t even consider them and want to “shove vaccines down your throat (or arm).” From my perspective, that’s just another reason to vote Democratic in the fall.

One last curiosity: Mr. Bentivolio came back to his experience in Iraq, talking about observing the soldiers in his unit before and after getting the anthrax vaccine. He swore that they were less happy, more irritable, and more depressed after the vaccine and wished that he had made an Excel spreadsheet to keep track. He was also convinced that morale in his unit plummeted after everyone was vaccinated. Can you say “confirmation bias”? Sure, I knew you could.

An antivaccine greatest hits compilation

By the time the Q&A finally rolled around, I was exhausted. I had just sat through a veritable greatest hits package of antivaccine tropes, courtesy of an antivaccine NICU nurse, a functional medicine NP, a fringe Congressional candidate, a dad convinced that vaccines had caused his children’s autism, and, most distressing of all, my state representative who, even if he himself didn’t spout antivaccine tropes, appeared to take what he was hearing at face value and indulge the pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and other nonsense in the name of “freedom.” I mean really? “Fetal cells in vaccines“? Check. “Fetal DNA in vaccines that’ll make your child autistic“? Check. “Toxins“? Check. CDC conspiracies? Check.No herd immunity? Check “Virus shedding” after vaccination? Check. Food allergies due to the MMR because it’s a “mutated virus”? Check. Chemtrails? Check…no, wait, that was just the one guy, and none of the panelists brought up chemtrails. They might as well have, though, given how divorced from reality and science they were.

Patrick Colbeck

Patrick Colbeck makes his entrance.

Heck, near the end, my old buddy and state senator Patrick Colbeck showed up. He’s running for governor now, and told the crowd to ignore the polls because he, who had predicted Trump would win, is now predicting that he’ll be our next governor. He won’t. (He also seems to forget that he was Ted Cruz’s campaign chair for the state back during the Republican primaries in 2016.) In any event, I can’t wait until after August 7, when he’ll be out of the race, and then for January 1, when he’ll no longer be my state senator.

A favorite conspiracy among the crowd that popped up in the Q&A was the claim that pediatrics practices were falsely entering unvaccinated children in the state vaccine database as having been vaccinated. One woman claims that her child showed up in the database as having been vaccinated at a pediatrics office in Kalamazoo, even though she and her children had never been to Kalamazoo. (I’m guessing these are likely bureaucratic mistakes, which will happen from time to time in a database of millions, but that’s just me.) The motivation? Money, of course. There was much discussion of how Blue Cross apparently pays a bonus for each fully vaccinated child. Yes, it’s known as pay for performance, and it’s nothing at all nefarious. (It’s also generally not that much money.) Ask yourself: Why would Blue Cross want to encourage vaccination? It’s the same reason it encourages other preventive care services; in the long run vaccines save the insurance company money because vaccinated children are far less likely to get preventable diseases. In any case, this mother was amazed that her child’s name and birthday had appeared in the database, apparently not considering that a typo could have rendered a child with the same name as having the same birthdate. Rep. Noble said that he thought the mother should talk to the attorney general. (Of course.)

Another claim made in the Q&A by a different woman (but the same woman who was incensed that HIV-positive children were allowed in school while unvaccinated children could be excluded) was that “three babies died on the table” following their vaccinations. Naturally, the woman wouldn’t “reveal the name” of the pediatrician, but called the doctor “her” and said she was a “real Henry Ford Pediatrician.” Lovely. Another woman went on and on about how vaccine injuries are underreported. By this time, I was tuning out, and, fortunately or unfortunately depending on your view, the video cuts out, leaving me with just my notes. (At this point I wished I had recorded the audio.)

One refrain I kept hearing among people in the audience that you probably don’t get from the video was, “Where are all the doctors?” It’s a refrain that popped up a couple of times over the course of the 90 minutes, and at each point I exercised near-superhuman restraint and didn’t jump up to say, “Here’s one!” Actually, the lack of doctors anywhere on the panel or anywhere in attendance was the only thing about this antivax confab that made me happy. There shouldn’t be any doctors at a meeting like this, ever, except to report on it or to to inject some science. It didn’t take me long to conclude that trying to inject some science would have been a lost cause; so I took the Paul Knoepfler approach to his attendance at a stem cell sales event and just observed.

After the Q&A, the meeting was over, but many of the attendees lingered to talk with the panelists, and Chemtrail Guy went around buttonholing more people to talk to them about…chemtrails. (There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, too.) I wandered around one last time, noting a table where copies of VAXXED on DVD were for sale, along with other antivaccine propaganda films and books, interspersed with free pamphlets and booklets, some of which members of Michigan for Vaccine Choice had been handing out while the panel discussion was in progress.

Ack! It's the "toxins" gambit!

Ack! It’s the “toxins” gambit!

So what concerns me about this event, besides the usual antivaccine myths, tropes, pseudoscience, and misinformation? To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have made the effort to attend if it had just been Kerry Bentivolio there with the same antivaxers. He is, after all, a fringe candidate. However, my state representative was on the panel too. He sits on the Health Policy Committee, pushing efforts to make measles great again in Michigan. He happily participated in an event in which the antivaccine group Michigan for Vaccine Choice was prominently in attendance. This is very bad.

I’m glad I went, too. Rewatching parts of the session on FB Video, I understand that being there was a very different experience than watching it on FB. For one thing, being there let me know that the crowd was basically 100% antivaccine. There wasn’t a word of skepticism was expressed by anyone I saw there, and fervent belief was expressed by many. (Can I get an “Amen,” brothers and sisters?) I also now understand that Rep. Noble is beyond recall, something I hadn’t realized before. I don’t think he’s antivaccine himself, but he is what I would call antivaccine-sympathetic or antivaccine-adjacent. He has no clue about epidemiology and has hopelessly conflated “freedom” with permission for parents to let their child endanger others based on pseudoscience, quackery, conspiracy theories, and fairy dust.

And I’m still really, really cheesed that that antivaccine NICU nurse is a clinical instructor at my university’s nursing school, and, after having endured assaults on my brain through over an hour and a half of this nonsense, I was also seriously tempted to stop at the local liquor store on the way home. I didn’t, but barely.