Without a doubt, in the US the antivaccine movement is largely white, affluent, and privileged. At least that’s true of the members of the antivaccine movement that we see on social media every day spreading pseudoscience and misinformation about vaccines and especially those protesting bills to eliminate nonmedical exemptions to school or SB 276, the bill in California to crack down on bogus “medical” exemptions, who, in their utter privilege, liken themselves to the “new civil rights movement“. That’s not to say that there aren’t antivaxers among the poor and minorities, but by and large the reasons for poorer vaccine uptake in those communities have less to do with vaccine hesitancy or antivaccine views than with lack of access to adequate health care or other financial or social barriers to having their children vaccinated. It’s also because many of these communities are vulnerable that this particular targeting is particularly dangerous. After all, if a community is already medically underserved, it certainly doesn’t help them if their vaccination rates fall because of antivaccine propaganda taking hold. That’s not to say that antivaxers haven’t been trying to recruit from minorities.
Indeed, they’ve explicitly targeted them with their misinformation. I’ve been writing about this sort of tactic for years now, and I saw earlier this week that the mainstream media has apparently finally noticed as well, given that ABC News published a story, Anti-vaccine leaders targeting minority becomes growing concern at NYC forum. The story is about the Harlem Vaccine Forum, in which Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. targeted people of color in Harlem, but the story goes back long before that.
One of the earliest (and most despicable) examples of antivaxers targeting a vulnerable minority population began over a decade ago, when a cluster of autism cases was noted in the Somali immigrant community. The story made the news, and unfortunately antivaxers descended like vultures and succeeded in convincing a lot of parents in the community that it must be vaccines causing the cases of autism. For example, David Kirby, author of the book Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy, which was one of the early works using pseudoscience to link thimerosal in vaccines to autism was writing articles like ‘Autism May Be Caused By “Chemical Exposures”‘ specifically about the Somali community in Minnesota, with a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” that the “idea that ‘chemical exposures’ (vaccine related or otherwise) might cause autism still brings virtual apoplexia to certain scientific circles.” He had previously hammered the same theme on the antivaccine blog Age of Autism. I’m not going to go into detail here why this cluster of autism cases was not really evidence of a higher rate of autism or that vaccines cause autism. I did that already over two years ago. The point is that white, affluent antivaxers targeted a immigrant community consisting of people of color, and the results were measles outbreaks, the worst of which occurred between 2016-2017, and as a result uptake of the MMR vaccine plummeted from over 90% to 42% in just a decade.
Worse, during the middle of outbreaks, antivaxers regularly showed up to give talks and spread their misinformation. During the last outbreak in 2017, Mark Blaxill swooped in to spread antivaccine pseudoscience. The crew of the VAXXED bus showed up to do the same. Indeed, back during the first major outbreak in 2011, Andrew Wakefield himself even made appearances.
I’ve also discussed multiple other examples. Back in 2016, after the release of the antivaccine propaganda movie disguised as a documentary, VAXXED, Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, and others held screenings with Q&As afterward in minority communities, such as Compton. During their protests in 2015 to try to stop the passage of SB 277 in California, the bill that ultimately passed and eliminated nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates, antivaxers, such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., teamed up with the Nation of Islam in their protests.
It’s not just communities of color, though. It’s any isolated community that might be marginalized or vulnerable. Another recent example of antivaxers targeting isolated communities involved their preying upon the orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn and Rockland County, spreading antivaccine misinformation and invoking “religious freedom” to argue against making it harder for them to obtain religious exemptions to school vaccine mandates. The result was a very large measles outbreak.
So it’s good to see mainstream media noticing this particular predatory tactic:
Increasingly, those same anti-vaccine leaders have their sights focused on a new target: they’re infiltrating minority groups with existing skepticism of the medical establishment and exploiting the historically fraught relationships those groups have with doctors.
“It’s really vile, predatory behavior,” Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said of the anti-vaccine leadership.
The “band of predators,” as Hotez dubbed them, includes Robert Kennedy Jr., a prominent anti-vaccine proponent, and Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who sparked the anti-vaccine movement with a now-debunked and retracted study and who is barred from practicing medicine because of numerous ethical violations.
They’ve already spread disinformation about vaccines in the Somali refugee population in Minnesota and Orthodox Jewish communities in New York State, which have both suffered severe measles outbreaks. Now all signs point to an effort to undermine the black community’s fragile relationship with doctors.
Unfortunately, the African-American community is particularly vulnerable to this sort of appeal because its members have a lot of reasons to distrust the conventional medical community. Of course, there’s the history of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which African-American men with syphilis were intentionally left untreated in order to observe the natural course of the disease. It was an incredibly unethical experiment, a medical atrocity actually, and it’s the sort of thing African-Americans don’t forget. It’s not the only story, unfortunately. Far from it. Indeed, the cancer institute where I work has an active research program in medical disparities, including the effect of implicit bias on interactions between minorities and physicians. It was an eye-opening experience to learn about it and see presentations about just how differently minorities are often treated, even by physicians with little or no detectable overt racism.
The most interesting part of the story to me is how antivaxers tried to recruit an African-American writer and science journalist, Harriet Washington:
Her work, including authoring the book “Medical Apartheid,” has focused on African Americans being mistreated by certain medical professionals throughout history. So when Washington received an unexpected phone call from Kennedy roughly five years ago, she says he may have expected that her critique of racism in medicine translated into blanket distrust of established medicine.
During the conversation, Washington says she remembers discussing Kennedy’s claim to her that African-American boys were being used in secret vaccine experiments, and a subsequent parallel she says Kennedy drew to the infamous Tuskegee experiment.
“He was clearly trying to enlist me,” claimed Washington.
This brings me to one of the more fantastical conspiracy theories used by white antivaxers to try to recruit black people to their beliefs, the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory. I’ve written about and discussed this particular conspiracy theory more times than I can remember, but to boil it down to its essence it involves the “reanalysis” of a study looking at the MMR vaccine as a risk factor for autism conducted by CDC researchers 15 years ago. In brief, CDC researcher William Thompson got into a series of phone conversations with an antivaxer named Brian Hooker, biochemical engineer turned incompetent epidemiologist and statistician. Thompson provided Hooker with access to the data for the study, “reanalyzed” the data and claimed to find a four-fold elevated risk of autism in African-American boys. As I explained many times, though, he and Andrew Wakefield neglected to mention that even Hooker’s reanalysis was stone cold negative for even a whiff of a correlation in every other subgroup and the entire population studied overall, that the number of African-American boys was very small, making this result almost certainly spurious (which is why it disappeared when the original researchers did it). The conspiracy theory became the basis of the movie VAXXED. And, yes, comparing this alleged result was compared to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in the very first video about the CDC whistleblower produced by Andrew Wakefield.
Interestingly (and not unexpectedly), RFK Jr. was not particularly pleased when Washington was…less than enthusiastic…for his speculation:
But when Washington, who worked for years as a science journalist, pushed back at Kennedy, asking for proof to back up the connections he was making (and has made before), “He became very angry and began shouting at me,” she said.
The conversation continued to digress, Washington said, with Kennedy suggesting that she “was somehow being disloyal to African Americans.”
Then Kennedy hung up, she said. Kennedy denied raising his voice and told ABC News Washington’s claim that he implied she was unsupportive of the African-American community was “invented, crazy and just wrong.”
Gaslighting. It’s what old white guys like RFK Jr. do best, particularly to women and even more so to women of color. Let’s just put it this way: Whom should I believe, a respected journalist or a lying liar like RFK Jr.? Indeed, that RFK Jr. called Washington a liar (her claim was “invented”) and crazy tells me that it’s far more likely that Washington’s version of what happened is the much more accurate one. After all, if RFK Jr. told me it was sunny outside, I wouldn’t believe him until I had a chance to look out of a window myself to verify.
I also like that this news story included a quote to show what minorities think of antivaxers misappropriating the language of the civil rights movement to apply to their own “struggle” to make measles great again:
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, a New York City-based civil rights organization, said that “interlopers” like Kennedy do a disservice to the African-American community when they appropriate civil rights language to further anti-science positions.
“I’m not seeing a scintilla of scientific evidence from any reputable public health expert that supports their claims,” he said. “If you don’t have that, do not come into our communities trying to trick, fool and bamboozle people and create artificial fear.”
Before the MMR vaccine was available, kids regularly died of the measles and mumps, Morial, who has three kids, cautioned.
“We’re talking about something that’s so serious. You’re trying to convince parents to put their own children and the children in their community at risk,” he added.
Thats exactly what RFK Jr. and his ilk are doing. They don’t think of it that way, because they deny the efficacy and safety of vaccines, but it’s what they’re doing nonetheless. Indeed, when it comes to vaccines and autism, RFK Jr. is the very epitome of the white savior, except that what he is doing is the opposite of saving anyone. That they would invoke the civil rights movement in the process makes what they’re doing all the more detestable.