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Passing vaccine legislation after Disneyland outbreaks

This is a guest post by Karen Ernst, who is the parent-leader of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease. Karen is the mother of three boys and the wife of a military officer, living in Minnesota. 

The Disneyland measles outbreaks should have yielded unprecedented vaccine legislation tightening religious and personal exemptions from vaccinations for children across the country. After all, kids got measles. From Disneyland. Make it stop, right?

Yet I wasn’t surprised to see this tweet from a local anti-vaccine activist:

He wasn’t informing me–heck, I already knew the North Carolina bill was dead. He was rubbing it in.

You see, what the Disneyland outbreaks did was embolden parents to enter vaccine-related conversations. They happily shared Jimmy Kimmel videos on social media and readily told their friends that anti-vaccine ideas were akin to believing the Earth is flat. All of this is immensely important and makes me very happy.

But these newly pro-vaccine parents had no idea what they were up against. Make no mistake, my friends, the anti-vaccine movement is a well-oiled, well-monied machine. They know exactly how to sway legislation their way so that they can easily opt out of requirements designed to keep schools as free from disease as possible.

I think most vaccinating parents would be stunned to learn exactly how these anti-vaxxers are so effective. Twice now, I have been witness to their machinations. And twice, I have learned how much better organized and funded they are.

The first time was at the Minnesota Department of Health Rulemaking Hearing in June of 2013 that added vaccines to the required list to keep the list in line with the CDC schedule. And the second was at the Minnesota Senate Health and Human Services committee hearing on a bill designed to add a requirement for parents to get a physician signature before opting out of vaccines.

What were the anti-vaxxers able to do that we were not:

  1. Show up. Both times, three pro-vaccine parents appeared before these hearings. Both times, nearly ten times the number of anti-vaxxers appeared. At least the second time I got smart and told parents to bring their children.
  2. Visit legislators ahead of hearings en masse. Anti-vaxxers schedule group visits to legislators. They even continue to visit legislators after a bill is dead. They bring books and pamphlets full of all their misinformation. They cry “parents rights!” They fill a legislators’ ears with all of their pseudoscience before a legislator even has the chance to get appropriate information. These in-person meetings are important because their next tactic is also so effective.
  3. Spam email legislators. One legislator told me that he received nearly a thousand emails about one bill, and he had stopped reading them. So all those emails you are sending to legislators make no difference unless your subject line is simply: “I support Bill XXXX.”
  4. Confuse the issue so that legislators fall back on previous knowledge or inaction. It’s shocking how little lawmakers know about public health. One legislator didn’t realize that vulnerable children who cannot be vaccinated attend public schools along with unvaccinated children who can sicken them with preventable diseases. Lawmakers are bombarded with anti-vaccine Gish Gallops that would take any reasonable person hours to dissect and debunk. And these state lawmakers do not have the time.
  5. Bring in their superstars from out of state. Andrew Wakefield visited Oregon. RFK Jr. testified in front of the Illinois Senate. And in Minnesota, wealthy activists brought in internet snake oil salesperson Toni Bark, who gave a long-winded, laughably terrible testimony that has sadly been lost. (I really wish this recording of her testimony stil existed. It was awful and would likely end her “Skin and Chocolate” career.) Who testifies for the pro-vaccine side? Actually, really well-informed and dedicated doctors, nurses, and public health officials who have the pesky duty of telling the truth and getting their facts straight. Unfortunately, a convincing lie is easier to believe than a nuanced fact.

We have to mobilize better. Next time we feel the itch to share that funny pro-vaccine meme on Facebook, we should take one minute to call up our state legislators and tell them that we want them to do something to prevent the next outbreak of preventable disease in our district.

Over 90% of us vaccinate on time. If even 10% of us picked up that phone and made that call, legislation to tighten vaccine exemptions wouldn’t fail.

Michael Simpson

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