‘Grass-roots’ vaccination foes funded by wealthy few


With children  in tow and emotions cranked to the max, parents from coast to coast have protested officials’ efforts to protect the public’s health by requiring children to be immunized against contagious and infectious diseases that can cause great harm. A cornerstone of the vaccination resistance has been its proponents push to portray themselves as a grass-roots movement of independent individuals fighting medical overreach by the state.

But the Washington Post, as part of its coverage of the nation’s most severe outbreak of measles in three decades (more than 1,000 cases with just half the year over), reported that Bernard Selz, a philanthropic Manhattan hedge fund manager, and his wife, Lisa, have given more than $3 million to groups that oppose vaccination. This has allowed individuals associated with the groups to organize vaccination opponents, giving them leaders to coalesce around and an out-sized voice in public controversies over kids and shots.

Selz money has gone to Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor who brought professional disgrace on himself and who had his medical license in his home country stripped over falsehoods he spread through a since-retracted article in a medical journal purporting to link vaccine shots to autism — a claim not only unsupported but debunked repeatedly by rigorous, published, follow-on research.

It’s unknown why the Selzes oppose vaccination, helping to fuel the current bad outbreak (a fuller look at it and the importance of vaccination can be found by clicking here). But their cash has, among other things, helped pay for Wakefield to create a dubious “documentary” opposing shots and relying on his counter-factual theories.

The couple’s foundation — better known for donating for the arts, culture, education, and the environment —  provides roughly three-fourths of the funding, the Washington Post reported, for the Informed Consent Action Network, “a three-year-old charity that describes its mission as promoting drug and vaccine safety and parental choice in vaccine decisions.”

ICAN’s public face is Del Bigtree, who the newspaper said is a onetime daytime TV producer with zero medical credentials but a powerful and persuasive presence. He has testified to lawmakers in states considering the elimination of exemptions for youngsters’ inoculations for health and religious reasons. He also coordinates and appears with other anti-vaccination figures like Robert Kennedy (shown in photo above, left, with Bigtree), a lawyer and the late president’s nephew who has been denounced by members of the political dynasty for what they call his misguided and misinformed opposition to immunization.

ICAN works with Kennedy’s anti-vaccination Children’s Health Defense, and with Barbara Loe Fisher, who says her son was injured by vaccines. She runs the National Vaccine Information Center, a Virginia-based nonprofit that fights legislative efforts to tighten vaccine requirements.

Elected leaders and public health officials have criticized the well-known vaccination opponents for stirring up unfounded fears among parents and providing their already wobbly thinking about safeguards against diseases like measles with inaccurate information. Bigtree inflamed the Orthodox Jewish community in New York, which is divided over inoculations and has seen hundreds of measles cases among its children, by using Holocaust imagery (a yellow Star of David worn on his lapel) to attack what he terms as autocratic behavior by health officials who insist on kids having shots before going to school.

Meantime, the Daily Beast, an online news site, also reported that Albert Dwoskin, a New York real estate developer and noted Democratic Party donor, has cut off his funding of the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute, an anti-vaccination group founded by his former wife, Claire. Dwoskin said he has researched vaccinations more thoroughly and now regrets supporting the recently shuttered institute and its hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending to oppose immunizations and to spread counter factual information about inoculations.

In California, as lawmakers sought to crack down on doctors granting medical exemptions to vaccination requirements for youngsters, protesters hissed and raged at politicians in Sacramento. Still, the state is advancing some of the toughest rules on inoculations in the country, even as media organizations in the sprawling state’s north and south reported that a select few doctors — many with otherwise little and rare care in their practices for youngsters — are writing the preponderance of the controversial inoculation exemptions.

Vaccination proponents and public health officials hope to shut this legal loophole with a bill that keeps marching forward in Sacramento, as the Los Angeles Times reported:

Doctors [under the new law] would have to certify, under penalty of perjury, that the medical exemption they sign is accurate and, along with parents, would have to agree to release any related health records to support their claims. Those records would help the Medical Board of California investigate doctors who write fraudulent medical exemptions.

In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and the heartbreak that can occur due to injuries to babies and children, especially if they fail to get appropriate medical care. Long experience and a mountain of tough research shows that vaccinations provide a key way to protect youngsters’ health, especially from infections like the measles that sicken kids and can impair their hearing, cognitive capacity, and even cost them their lives. It is unacceptable that decades of concerted campaigning to reduce the harms of measles, mumps, whooping cough, polio, tetanus, diphtheria, meningitis, and other infections may be undone by mis- or disinformation.

Yes, vaccines, like any medical treatment, carry risks. But these are far outweighed by the individual and collective health benefits that result when sizable numbers of individuals get vaccinated, giving not only singular but also “herd immunity” against illnesses.

Most Americans, studies show, favor vaccinations. We can get the recommended shots for our kids, our loved ones, and ourselves. We can talk calmly and with persistence to those who may not have evidence-based views about shots.

We also may need to see realities about “grass-roots” movements and to keep on top of them — to ensure their First Amendment and other constitutional rights get respected while also being vigilant if they pose risks to society. These are not concerns to be taken lightly in these times of the spread of viral, virulent, violent, and evidence-free views via the internet and social media. It’s a brave new world in talking about and reaching a consensus on health and medical matters, and experts would be well to dig in and help us all figure how to make our world work better. Lest anyone doubt how interests can deceive and sway public health, it may be worth the time to look at the Chicago Tribune’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist entry in investigative reporting. The newspaper found that manufacturers, with a well-placed fib here, and then there, and there, imperiled consumers’ health by prolonging the wide use of toxic fire retardants. Go back and read the reporters’ first story in a series, describing the facile, shifting, and multiple testimonies by retired burn surgeon David Heimbach. We have a lot of work to do to protect our collective health.

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