Protecting people from getting sick should be the definition of an uncontroversial idea. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like our state legislators agree.
As we head into the 2020 session, Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, has introduced a bill barring schools from requiring students to be immunized against disease. He’s become the latest Republican state legislator to fall for conspiracy theories and propaganda about vaccines.
Email records recently uncovered by the group Equity Forward show that fringe groups such as the National Vaccine Information Center and the Association of American Physicians have been working through state legislators’ offices to push anti-vaccine misinformation.
These organizations may sound official, but in reality, they are far-right lobbying groups. Despite its objective-sounding name, the National Vaccine Information Center (originally named Dissatisfied Parents Together) exists to advocate against vaccines based on long-discredited studies and anecdotal evidence. NVIC’s director, Barbara Loe Fisher, is a favorite of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and has appeared on his show to make the case that vaccines are a stepping stone towards a government-sponsored effort to take over healthcare and bring back eugenics.
The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons is a far-right conservative lobbying group that runs a fake “medical journal” not recognized by any academic institution or peer-reviewed publication. They have published authors who claim that climate change is not because of human activity, that HIV does not cause AIDS, and that abortions lead to breast cancer, all of which have been discredited by accredited medical and academic journals.
The email records show that the National Vaccine Information Center worked closely with Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, and Rep. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, on the three anti-vax bills they introduced last session. Irene Pizzi (aka Irene Pi), the group’s state director, provided background information and helped set strategy. The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons weighed in with their own talking points, emphasizing the (minuscule) risks of vaccines and claiming that doctors push vaccines to pad their own pockets, with no mention of vaccines’ enormous public health benefits.
By early March, rhetoric at the Capitol around vaccines had grown so bizarre and overheated that Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, was comparing school vaccination requirements to the government forcibly tattooing ID numbers on people’s arms.
The Health and Human Services Committee passed all three anti-vaccine bills on a party-line vote: HB2470/SB1114 (creating a religious exemption from vaccination), SB2471/SB1115 (requiring medical professionals to provide overwhelming and potentially confusing details on vaccine benefits and risks before each shot) and HB2472/SB1116 (requiring an unnecessary blood test before a vaccination). None of the three bills made it to a floor vote in the House.
But in many ways, the damage was done. The high-profile lobbying campaign around Boyer’s and Barto’s bills contributed to a growing and deeply misleading public narrative about the dangers of vaccines.
Just a few months after Boyer and Barto introduced their bills, a measles epidemic driven by reduced vaccination rates sickened one person in Arizona and hundreds more across the country, leading New York City and Washington to declare states of emergency.
Since then, declining vaccination rates in Maricopa County have contributed to the first outbreak of mumps in many years, and a measles outbreak in Samoa driven by anti-vax rumors has killed 81 people, mostly children under 4. The World Health Organization listed the growing anti-vaccine sentiment as one of the top 10 global health threats of 2019.
Parents shouldn’t endanger everyone’s children by skipping out on vaccinations, which are safe, effective and save lives. And state legislators shouldn’t endanger the state as a whole by spreading dangerous misinformation about one of the most important public health tools we have.
Emily Kirkland is executive director of Progress Now Arizona.