Supporters of state legislation to tighten vaccine exemptions appeared poised for success this year after the Disneyland measles outbreak, but opponents are hoping the Kennedy magic proves equally contagious.
Longtime vaccination critic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. notched a victory last week with the defeat of a bill in Oregon, one of his first stops on a national barnstorming tour of states considering measures to make it tougher to opt out of childhood immunizations.
Mr. Kennedy met with lawmakers and hosted a screening of the film “Trace Amounts,” which ties a mercury-based preservative in some childhood vaccines to autism. He urged lawmakers to kill Senate Bill 442, which would have eliminated the nonmedical exemption in Oregon, the nation’s leading state for religious and philosophical exemptions at the kindergarten level, with 7.1 percent of parents opting out of child vaccinations.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to force people to undergo, to have their children undergo a medical procedure in this country,” Mr. Kennedy said in a segment on KOIN-TV in Salem. “I think it’s against the tenets of our country.”
Mr. Kennedy’s star power, combined with a huge push from the “medical freedom” movement, proved too much for the coalition of state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward. The Democrat, physician and sponsor of S.B. 442 pulled the bill Thursday amid crumbling support, saying she no longer had the votes despite the backing of the Oregon Health Policy Board.
“Some of my colleagues changed their minds,” she told the Salem Statesman Journal. “They got a lot of pressure one way or another. This is an issue that really mobilizes a very small minority of people, but it makes them very loud. I get that. That’s their right. But there were a bunch of people who weren’t prepared to take on this controversial of a topic at this point.”
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Oregon marks the beginning of what looms as a busy legislative year for Mr. Kennedy. As many as 36 states are considering vaccine-related bills, about a dozen of which would eliminate nonmedical exemptions. Mr. Kennedy plans to hit as many of those states as possible.
“All we’re doing is education. I mean, we’re just educating and not proposing particular legislation, but we’re letting the legislatures know that some of their assumptions are not correct,” Mr. Kennedy told The Washington Times in a phone interview.
Mr. Kennedy has emerged as a polarizing figure with his battle against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He calls the CDC a “cesspool of corruption” with conflicts of interest on vaccination, but also has been accused of stirring up anti-science hysteria.
“RFK Jr. Joins the Anti-Vaccine Fringe” was the headline on a July 2014 Time magazine column. The Daily Caller asked in a Feb. 5 column, “Should Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Go to Jail for Being a Vaccine Denier?”
Even so, it’s the rare state legislator who will pass up an opportunity to meet with a direct descendant of “Camelot.” As far as “Trace Amounts” producer and director Eric Gladen is concerned, the drop in support for the Oregon bill was largely the result of the one-two punch of Mr. Kennedy’s appeal and the film.
“He had meetings with the legislators first, and Bobby knows the science very well and he knows the issue very well,” Mr. Gladen said. “Then they saw the film, and I think that was the tipping point. Once they saw the film, they said, ‘No way.’”
Mr. Kennedy hosted a screening last week in Atlanta, then flew to Illinois for meetings in Chicago and the state capital in Springfield. Next on his agenda are trips to New York and Washington.
He won’t be at this week’s film screenings in Indianapolis and Detroit, but his book will. Those attending are promised a free copy of “Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak” (Skyhorse, 2014). Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative used in some vaccines.
He is drawing news coverage in California, where there are plans to replicate the successful Oregon strategy. Legislators in Sacramento introduced a bill to eliminate the “personal belief” exemption after the state became ground zero of the winter measles outbreak.
“Robert F. Kennedy Jr. jumps into California vaccine debate,” said a Monday headline on The Sacramento Bee’s website.
Mr. Gladen said the campaign is also heading to Austin, Texas, where state lawmakers are considering legislation to end “conscientious” exemptions as cases of whooping cough rise.
“With the re-emergence of diseases that have been eradicated in the United States for decades, such as measles and whooping cough, we have no choice but to take immediate action to protect our communities from these devastating maladies,” Texas state Rep. Jason Villalba, who sponsored the bill, said in a Feb. 26 statement.
CDC figures show 145 cases of measles in seven states from Dec. 28 through March 13. The legislative push stems from concerns in the public health field about a loss of “herd immunity” as a growing number of parents opt their children out of vaccines.
Mr. Kennedy said the “measles scare” has been blown out of proportion.
“They’ve taken a garden-variety measles outbreak that is actually on the low side — we have measles outbreaks every year in this country — and turned it into an orchestrated effort at getting rid of all of the exemptions,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Mr. Kennedy hails from the Democratic Party’s most famous family, but the vaccination issue cuts across party lines.
Mr. Villalba, sponsor of the Texas bill, is a Republican, and California state Sens. Richard Pan and Ben Allen, who introduced Senate Bill 277 to end the personal-belief opt-out, are Democrats.
If Oregon and Washington are any indication, however, passing those bills may be tougher than expected. In Washington, a bill to remove the state’s personal-beliefs exemption sputtered after its sponsor failed to muster the votes needed for passage on the House floor.
“I know we will continue to see disease outbreaks in our communities because vaccination levels are low,” state Rep. June Robinson, a Democrat, told the Everett (Washington) Herald. “I’m committed to bringing [the bill] back next year.”
In Oregon, Ms. Steiner Hayward hasn’t abandoned hope of passing a vaccination bill this year. She plans to follow up with a more limited bill that would require parents to consult with a physician before opting out, instead of having the option of watching an online video.
She also wants schools to make their exemption rate data more accessible.
“Schools will make information about their exemption rates more readily available so there can be local conversations about this important public health issue,” she said in a statement on her Facebook page. “I believe this approach will address all the concerns we’ve heard.”
Whether that sparks another visit from Mr. Kennedy remains to be seen, but he may be the least of her concerns. Members of the “anti-vaxxer” movement have plastered Facebook and Twitter with an altered picture of Ms. Steiner Hayward holding a syringe with a Nazi swastika in the background.
Although Mr. Kennedy has raised concerns about the link between vaccines and autism — a connection that the CDC and the major medical groups say has been decisively discredited — he insists he is not anti-vaccination. All six of his children were immunized.
“I’m fiercely pro-vaccine,” he said. “But I want safe vaccines, and I want a safe regulatory system.”