The Ohio statehouse has an antivaccine problem

I hadn’t planned on writing about vaccines again today, having written about the antivaccine movement too many times in the last week. But, as Michael Corleone said in The Godfather, Part III, “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.” What do I mean this time? Simple. Yesterday I came across a news report showing something that disturbs me, namely how much influence the antivaccine movement is amassing in my state’s neighbor to the south, Ohio. It appears that the Ohio statehouse has a real antivaccine problem and that antivaccine views have—if you’ll excuse the term—gone viral there.

Obviously, we here in Michigan are not immune from our own antivaccine problems. For example, right before the 2016 election, I described how Del Bigtree and antivaxers associated with the antivaccine propaganda film disguised as a documentary, VAXXED, were making the rounds at the Michigan statehouse and unfortunately finding some all-too-receptive ears there. (That was also the visit to Michigan in which Del Bigtree was the main speaker at a fundraiser for a local antivaccine PAC and gave what can only be described as an incredibly over-the-top performance. Did you know that antivaxers are just like the Founding Fathers, fighting for liberty, or Martin Luther King, Jr., fighting for civil rights? Neither did I.) Then there was the time before the 2018 midterm primaries that I attended an antivaccine “roundtable” discussion hosted at the local Republican Party headquarters for my Congressional district by a candidate for the GOP nomination for Representative for my district. It was also attended by my state senator (who was running for governor because term limits didn’t let him run again) and my state representative (who, thankfully ultimately lost reelection.) They were the same not-so-dynamic-duo who co-sponsored a bill to make measles great again in Michigan by eliminating a reform by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that made it more difficult for parents to obtain personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates. And don’t even get me started how my former state senator, Patrick Colbeck, went from pandering to antivaxers to full-on antivax and 5G conspiracy crank.

Is the situation in Ohio as bad or worse? The story I cited at the beginning of this post notes that Ohio has Ohio Advocates for Medical Freedom (OAMF) and Health Freedom Ohio, (HFO). Of course, “health freedom” is a euphemism for freedom from regulation for quacks and antivaccine cranks. We have our own vaccine-specific versions of these groups in Michigan, Michigan For Vaccine Choice and Michigan Vaccine Freedom PAC. Michigan for Vaccine Freedom tends to work on advocacy and was a prominent presence at the GOP antivaccine confab that I attended, while the Michigan Vaccine Freedom PAC works to raise money to lobby and influence the legislature on vaccine-related issues. Perusing the website for OAMF, I see that, its more general name aside, the group definitely is mostly focused on vaccines, although it also does focus on promoting bills that would broaden the scope of practice of quacks, such as chiropractors. HFO appears to have a bit broader focus (e.g., promoting functional medicine and homeopathy), but is still very much into opposing vaccine mandates and spreading antivaccine misinformation, just like OAMF.

The story comes from a Twitter user with the handle @42believer, who relates attending a recent screening of VAXXED II: The People’s Truth. Before I delve into the story, it’s worth going through some of her Twitter thread:

Like @42believer, I wonder if any of these big corporations know that their commercials are being shown before an antivaccine propaganda film like VAXXED II in Ohio. Oh, and AMC Theaters? I know you’ve been hosting private screenings of this movie. Knock it off..

Also:

I wonder if Twitter, which owns Periscope, knows how integral its tool was to spreading the antivaccine message of the original VAXXED movie?

It sounds as though the production values on the sequel aren’t quite up to the “standards” of the first movie. Having seen the first movie, I can only imagine how bad the second is. It was Wakefield’s first attempt at directing, although, truth be told, given that Del Bigtree was producer and had TV directing and production experience, I had always suspected that he had done most of the directing himself and that Wakefield was just a figurehead. Be that as it may:

If the production values are worse on VAXXED II than on the first VAXXED movie, they must be pretty bad indeed. The message is still the same, though:

As do I. As do I. I also agree with this:

This is a very important point. The key reasons these movies are made are twofold:

  • To fire up the antivaccine base.
  • As a recruiting tool

They’ve proven themselves to be very effective at the first, as evidenced by people driving hours to these screening and the very cult-like feel a the screenings. How effective are they at the second? It’s hard to say, but I know from previous experience with the “documentaries” about cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski that films like this can be very effective persuasion. The production values don’t even have to be that great (and, believe me, they weren’t for both Burzynski movies and the first VAXXED movie). They just have to tweak the right emotional hooks and stoke the right fears, which the first VAXXED movie most definitely did. This time around, there were apparently comparisons of pro-vaccine activists to Hitler, because of course there were

It was this next observation that led @42believer to write her article:

Which brings us back to the article:

Both Ohio antivax groups regularly meet with Senators and Representatives at the Statehouse, and have succeeded in influencing policy decisions. HFO even hosted a press conference for HB 268, a bill with 7 sponsors and cosponsors, that would prohibit hospitals from taking an “adverse employment action” against employees who refuse to vaccinate. Once upon a time I visited my neutropenic friend in the hospital. If her nurse refused vaccinations, would moving that nurse to a different ward be considered an “adverse employment action”? Who knows, and thankfully it’s not going anywhere, but the fact that enough lawmakers have been so influenced that they introduce legislation that benefits anti-vaxxers is very worrying.

But anti-vaxxers don’t stop there.

If pro-vaccine legislation is introduced, they work quickly to try and quash it. A bill removing nonmedical exemptions to vaccines had bipartisan cosponsorship, but both dropped after the flurry of anti-vax pressuring. It didn’t even get so far as to receive a bill number. In committee I personally witnessed a legislator ask questions about a pro-vax bill at the behest of these anti-vax groups.

This is a problem not just in Ohio, but in a number of states, for example Texas, where Texans for Vaccine Choice wield outsize influence over vaccine legislation. Any attempt to tighten up restrictions on nonmedical exemptions gets shot down rapidly. In Texas and Oklahoma, pro-vaccine Republicans have even been successfully primaried.

As for VAXXED II, it sounds just like what I expected:

Vaxxed II starts with a recap of how Vaxxed came to be, how they got the bus, how helpful the news coverage was in getting the word out. The movie is then split into a few sections: one on autism, one on SIDS, and ne on the HPV vaccine. At the end is a section on all the unvaccinated children and how none of them have allergies, eczema, ADHD, ear infections, autism, or most any other ailment. If you take them at face value, you might believe it. However, all I could think about was my family member who has two unvaccinated kids. The older has eczema, and the younger is either on the spectrum or close enough.

Yes, it’s all anecdotes. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve described why antivaccine anecdotes are almost never indicative of causation, thanks to the natural human traits of confirmation bias and selective memory coupled with other phenomena such as regression to the mean and missing early signs of autism (for example). Correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, and when you look at the stories more closely often you don’t even find convincing evidence of correlation, such as when parents blame vaccines for a condition that arose many months after vaccination, which happens a lot.

Now here’s what’s disturbing going on in the Ohio statehouse:

After the movie was over, HFO hosted a Q&A session. I stuck around and learned some really interesting things. Apparently, the anti-vaxxers have been so effective that they have actually convinced several Ohio lawmakers not to vaccinate their children. There was also much bragging about how influential they’ve been especially with the House Health Committee. I know for a fact that the President of OAMF volunteers for State Representative Don Manning’s election campaign, and he’s the vice chair of that committee!

HFO also talked about the need to crowdfund for a lobbyist. Apparently the one they want costs $3,000 a month, which is really crazy to me. But it shows that they’re serious, and I think if enough parents are manipulated to this line of thinking that they could very well raise that money.

Actually, in politics, $3,000 a month isn’t even that much money. It’s $36,000 a year. A single affluent (not even necessarily wealthy) donor could manage that sum, and crowdfunding that much money from a passionate base of antivaxers would probably not be that difficult. It’s also horrifying that, if the account above is to be believed, legislators are being persuaded not to vaccinate their children. Of course, knowing antivaxers, “several” could really mean “one or two,” but that would still be plenty bad.

@42believer lists the names of the antivaxers, 29 Republicans and 6 Democrats, which basically jibes with the current tendencies of the two parties these days. As I’ve said, unfortunately the Republican Party has become the most hospitable of the two main parties to antivaxers and their influence, mainly because antivaxers have successfully co-opted the messages of “freedom” and “parental rights” and weaponized them to influence the GOP base, coupling them with anti-regulation fervor in order to appeal to the money base of the GOP as well. It’s gotten to the point that GOP candidates in many states now at least have to pander to antivaxers to win the nomination. Ohio is no different, particularly given the lock that Republicans currently have on the statehouse and governor’s office.

I’ll conclude by pointing out that Michigan has a problem too. All I had to do was to head over to the Michigan Vaccine Freedom PAC website and peruse the list of candidates endorsed by the PAC. Of course, many of those candidates didn’t win, but enough of them did to scare me. That’s why I agree with @42believer:

If you believe in vaccines, but do so passively, consider making it active. Start with contacting your state senator or representative, ask to meet and share your views, maybe ask them to advance pro-vaccine legislation. Do anything other than just posting funny anti-antivax memes. Organizations like the Ohio AAP chapter do lobby at the Statehouse in favor of vaccines, but they lobby on a variety of other subjects too. Legislators need to understand that normal people support vaccines, and that they’re just as willing to be every bit as passionate about it as an anti-vaxxer.

Last year, after my state senator and representative (both, thankfully former now) started promoting bills that would reverse progress in making nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates more difficult to obtain and try to frighten parents out of vaccinating by having them receive warnings about “fetal parts” or “fetal cells” in vaccines. Since then I’ve tried to keep a much closer eye on what’s going on in the legislature with respect to vaccines using, ironically enough, the legislative monitoring tool of an antivaccine group to do so. I encourage other pro-science advocates to do the same.