Jami Hepworth (a.k.a. Skeptical Doctor’s Wife): The latest antivaccine activist on the block

One of the most common tactics used by antivaxers to give themselves a patina of seeming authority is to invoke a degree or something about their background to assert that they know what they’re talking about. It is, in reality, an appeal to false authority. Sometimes this takes the form of actual physicians who are not pediatricians pontificating about “vaccine injury,” when their backgrounds do not give them an understanding of the science. More commonly, naturopaths, chiropractors, and other quacks do this all the time, as though their quackery-infused education provides them with sufficient expertise to give them authority discussing vaccines, autism, chronic disease, and the like, when in fact, if anything, there is a negative correlation between the possession of degrees in naturopathy, chiropractic, and other “alternative health” titles and saying anything science-based about vaccines. Sometimes, it’s scientists in disciplines unrelated to immunology or neuroscience throwing together bogus studies seeking to correlate vaccination and autism. In fairness, sometimes people with real backgrounds in immunology or real pediatricians like Drs. Paul Thomas, Bob Sears, and Larry Palevsky go antivax, and that’s a real problem because, although science-based pediatricians and immunologists immediately recognize the promotion of pseudoscience by these people, to the public their authority to the public appears real. In contrast, sometimes, antivaxers’ desperation to project an air of authority goes to truly ridiculous, risible levels. I’m referring to a woman named Jami Hepworth, who has dubbed herself the Skeptical Doctor’s Wife and, through her website and Facebook page, dedicated herself to spreading antivaccine propaganda.

Here’s how Ms. Hepworth introduces herself:

Welcome friends and skeptics! My name is Jami Hepworth. I am Skeptical Doctor’s Wife! I have always been a truth seeker, but the truth about vaccines was one that found me instead of the other way around.

Four years ago, I discovered with the tip of a friend, that some vaccines contain cell-lines derived from aborted babies. This was repulsive to me as a pro-life advocate and mother. How had I not known this information before I had agreed to vaccinate my children?! This ignited a sustained passion in me to research everything I ever thought I knew about vaccines. What I discovered shocked me even further. Not only were there moral issues, but there were significant safety concerns with vaccines, too. And the stories we have been told about the necessity of and victory over death attributed to vaccination were not in line with data presented on official government sites.

With my husband being an M.D. you might correctly imagine that my increasingly unorthodox views according to the Western medicine paradigm have presented a bit of a rocky road for us. They certainly did. But traveling this road has made me an exceptional truth advocate, steeped in knowledge of the most relevant peer-reviewed literature and the gaps in the story about vaccines as shared by official sources.

Before I go on, I must point out that, whenever I see this particular trope used, I can’t help but retort to someone like Hepworth that, no, vaccines do not contain cell lines derived from aborted babies. They just don’t. The virus used to make some vaccines are grown in one of two cell lines (MRC-5 and WI-38) to make up stocks to use in vaccines, each cell line derived from an aborted fetus in the mid-1960s, but no cells remain by the time the virus or viral proteins end up in the final vaccine product. If you’re seeking to convince me (or anyone else) that you know what you’re talking about, the quickest path to failure is to publish blatant misinformation about it. Again, there are no cells in vaccines, and, secondly, the cells used to grow the viral stocks for vaccine manufacture are so far removed from their original source that it’s an intentional deception to claim that they are “derived from aborted babies.” Being antiabortion is no excuse, as one can construct an argument based on that without promoting misinformation. It’s a bad argument rejected by the major religions, but one can construct an argument without parroting misinformation about “fetal cells from aborted babies.”

Some antivaxers are knowledgeable enough to know that there are no “fetal cells” in vaccines, which is why they’ve dropped back to a second line claim that there is “fetal DNA” from those cells in vaccines (one even going to a truly bizarre extreme to claim based on bad science that an entire fetal genome is in vaccines), a claim that is almost as deceptive. In any event, these “fetal cells” have contributed to saving millions of lives and preventing billions of cases of disease.

Of course, Ms. Hepworth’s use of her husband’s title is intentional. She is obviously seeking to have some of his authority as a physician reflect back on her to give her antivaccine propaganda a boost. It’s even reflected in her logo, which includes a pair of glasses, because, you know, glasses = smart or intellectual. Let’s just put it this way. Just because your spouse is a physician doesn’t mean that you are the least bit qualified to speak on medical matters. Physicians’ spouses can be ignoramuses, or they can be smarter than their spouses, or they can be anywhere in between. In this case, I learned that Jami Hepworth has a BA in German literature from Brigham Young University. Where did I learn this? From her testimony against AB123, a bill proposed in Nevada earlier this year to enhance the data collection process and centralize immunization information for rapid use during a disease outbreak. During the same testimony, she referred to vaccination as an “example of medical cannibalism.” She also stated that, over time, these cell lines “wane” and that they “have to get new cell lines,” implying that vaccine manufacturers are on the lookout for new aborted fetuses to make new cell lines. Nope. The same two cell lines have been in continuous use since the 1960s, and there is no sign that we are running out of them. She also said that her doctor had “never heard that these human cell lines were in vaccines.” There’s a reason for that. They’re not in vaccines. They are removed from the mix when the virus particles are harvested. How many times do I have to repeat this?

She was allowed only two minutes for testimony, but Ms. Hepworth tried to make the most of that time, laboring mightily to pack as many antivaccine tropes in the second minute as she could, including the bogus claim that vaccines are not tested against saline controls. This is one of the single dumbest and most easily refuted antivaccine claims, as a quick search of PubMed will demonstrate. Del Bigtree likes to repeat this lie, and it was easy to show how wrong he was for just one vaccine, without even listing all the others. If you’re interested, Dr. Vincent Ianelli has listed a bunch of these studies. Basically, this whole antivaccine trope rests on two misunderstandings. First, there is a misunderstanding of what constitutes a good placebo. In the case of vaccines, often the best placebo is to use the vaccine solution from which only the antigen has been removed. Sometimes saline placebos are used. The second misunderstanding is based on a misunderstanding of medical ethics. In the case of new vaccines against diseases for which there is no approved, standard-of-care vaccine generally recommended, it is ethical to do randomized trials using placebo controls, be they saline placeboes or vaccine minus antigen placebos. However, if a a vaccine exists against a given disease and is already in general use, then it is unethical to do a placebo-controlled randomized trial, because such a trial would randomize the control group to be unprotected against a disease for which the standard of care dictates vaccination. So, for instance, there will never be a new placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial for MMR, because it would be unethical. Instead, if there’s ever a new MMR vaccine, it will be tested against existing MMR vaccine for what we call non-inferiority, meaning that it’s tested to make sure that it’s at least as good as the existing vaccine. That’s the only ethical way to do a clinical trial once a vaccine against a given disease becomes the standard of care.

As for the rest, Ms. Hepworth packs in an “antivax greatest hits” in the last seconds of her testimony, including fear mongering about aluminum adjuvants and claims that they cause autoimmune diseases, apparently referencing Yehuda Shoenfeld’s highly dubious “ASIA” condition.

Here’s Ms. Hepworth again in a video from February against the same bill:

She really hates now that under AB123, if passed, nonmedical “personal belief” exemptions and medical exemptions would have to be submitted every year, that the records of exemptions would be kept in a centralized state agency, and that exemption letters would have to be signed by a physician or advanced practice nurse. She argues that this is discriminatory against the poor (yeah, right) and that it’s “insensitive” to parents who’ve had a child “die from vaccination,” claiming that they most likely have a genetic predisposition. (No such genetic predisposition to die after vaccination has ever been demonstrated.) She also claims that in 1986 the Supreme Court ruled that vaccines were “unavoidably unsafe.” (No, that was Bruesewitz v. Wyeth in 2011, and the term “unavoidably unsafe” is a favorite of antivaxers to parrot and bandy about without understanding what it means, which, when you consider the context, is not what it sounds like. Basically, legally, it means that nothing can be done to make the product safer without compromising its function.) She then goes on to claim that the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 made it impossible to sue the vaccine manufacturers. (It’s not; parents just have to go through the Vaccine Court first, which is actually easier to obtain compensation through than regular courts—and it pays complainants’ court costs, too, win or lose.) She denies that herd immunity is real, confusing waning immunity from pertussis vaccination (which can be remedied with a booster shot) with lack of herd immunity, parroting the dubious claim that vaccinating against a disease leads to resistance to the vaccine. (Andrew Wakefield repeated a whopper of a version of that bit of misinformation pretty recently.)

She even claims that no one in developed countries dies of the diseases that we vaccinate against. Oh, really? Tell that to the one in a thousand who die of measles, or the countless children who died of haemophilus influenza type B, which was a scourge that killed children until the vaccine was introduced in the early 1990s. In the mix, she even claims that we aren’t paying attention to the 20,000+ people who die of antibiotic-resistant infections every year. Again, oh, really? That must be why I see so many stories in the media about the threat of “superbugs.” Naturally, she concludes her video with an appeal to “health freedom.” Because of course she does. In any event, listening to her testimony and watching her video, I can’t help but conclude that Jami Hepworth is actually more ignorant of the science and facts about vaccines than the typical antivaccine activist. It’s embarrassing, really. Cringe-inducing.

On the other hand, it’s possible that she might have gotten better, become a cleverer, less ignorant antivaccine propagandist since February, which is when the video and testimony were recorded. So I perused her Facebook page, which seems to be where the bulk of her activism and posts are. It’s a new page, with her posting her introductory post on October 22:

There, I found that things are apparently not going so well. Ms. Hepworth appears to have been having difficulty dealing with refutations to her antivaccine pseudoscience, such as her sharing a list of scientific papers that allegedly support a link between vaccines and autism and various other conditions. (Hint: They don’t. Antivaxers love to confuse quantity of bullshit with quality of science. They list bad papers supporting their position and misinterpret good ones that don’t, all in the service of their propaganda.) In any case, she posted this:

Poor baby. Did someone use the laughing emoji reaction to your ignorant posts? How horrible! How ever can you stand it? Ridicule in tone? That’s a mild reaction! Then, after whining about “incivility, including “ridicule in tone” and the use of the dreaded laughing emoji reaction, Ms. Hepworth writes:

I maintain the position forever and always, that anyone who believes in and works for vaccines to be mandated without informed consent is an enemy of freedom and goodness, and is acting as a tyrannical extremist. Bodily sovereignty is a natural human right and needs to be maintained. If a product is good, you should be able to persuade without force or violence for others to willingly consume it. Violence in speech and action, starting with blatant disrespect to other human beings are indicators your seed is bad.

Apparently civility is a one-way street. Of course, Ms. Hepworth can run her page any way she pleases, but I can call out her hypocrisy.

Amusingly, three days ago, Ms. Hepworth held that most scientific of measures, a Facebook poll:

She then “analyzed” the results:

And, then, predictably, she decided to start blocking provaccine advocates who didn’t measure up to her expected level of “civility”:

While saying she’s “completely opposed to censorship,” she then describes her rules for conduct on her page, failure to adhere to which will lead to her censorship of you. Yes, I’m being sarcastic. Again, it’s her page, and she can run it any way she wants, and blocking trolls is certainly often necessary. However, perusing her page, I saw very little in the way of posts by provaccine advocates that could be considered trolling or abusive, and I did peruse most of the comments on the relatively few posts on her page. Basically, Ms. Hepworth has a rather thin skin for criticism and has no answers to the justifiable criticism. That’s why I can’t help but suspect that she’s decided to start blocking pro-vaccine commenters under the excuse of enforcing “civility.”

This brings me back to one last question. Ms. Hepworth is not a doctor. She’s not even a scientist, nor did she even obtain a degree in science. Her degree is in German literature. In the video above, she invokes her husband, Squire Hepworth, a family practice hospitalist who has actually commented on her page:

Squire Hepworth comments on his wife Jami Hepworth's Facebook page.

Ms. Hepworth is banning calling people “antivaccine” or “pro-vaccine,” which is amusing, given how she just characterized everyone who supports vaccine mandates as fascists. That’s why I call her appeal for “civility” and scientific debate a smokescreen.

Basically, she quotes him and his doctor friends as having told her that they were taught things in medical school that have become obsolete, which is, of course, true. Medical science marches on, and our understanding of disease and its best science-based treatment evolves. That does not mean that the current understanding and medical consensus that vaccines are safe and effective and do not cause autism or the other conditions for which antivaxers blame it. I will also call BS on her claim that doctors practice “about 30 years behind the times of evidence-based care.” If her husband said that, then he’s an idiot, and if he practices 30 years behind the times he should lose his license. Thirty years ago (even 20 years ago), we routinely removed all the lymph nodes under the arm of every patient with breast cancer. Yes, there are a few doctors who are unacceptably slow to change with the times, but 30 years ago would go back to me in medical school learning things that have long since been supplanted and that no doctor I know has done in a couple of decades. I must say, though, that I was incredibly amused at Hepworth’s invocation near the end of the video of “bloodletting” as not being wrong for hemochromatosis, as if this demonstrates that not all ancient medicine is wrong.

I also have to wonder what her husband Squire Hepworth thinks. Is he antivaccine too? Is he just tolerating her antivaccine activism now, in hopes that she’ll come around? Is he sympathetic to her antivaccine views? I know that, in the unlikely event my wife ever went antivaccine to the point of testifying against bills to strengthen vaccine mandates and becoming active with a statewide antivaccine advocacy group, it would place a horrific strain on my marriage that would likely destroy it before too long. Fortunately, this is an incredibly unlikely outcome.

What I do know is that Jami Hepworth is a new antivaccine activist. She’s appealing to the false authority of being a doctor’s wife, and she’s even more ignorant of science than the average antivax activist. In spite of that (or even because of that), I suspect that she’ll soon be sharing a stage with Del Bigtree and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and cosplaying V in antivaccine protests. More’s the pity.