A black tour bus promoting the 2016 documentary “Vaxxed: from Cover-up to Catastrophe” has spent all of February traveling up and down the California coast, garnering public testimonials about the purported link between childhood vaccinations and the onset of developmental disorders.
On Wednesday and Thursday, that bus will roll into the Sonora area.
Meredith McBride, a local physician who specializes in vascular surgery, said she arranged for the arrival of the crew because there is inadequate long-term safety data about the national vaccine program.
“It's kind if a big thing for our little town for them to come here,” she said.
“It's going to create a buzz” from both sides of the argument, she added. “People are going to talk about it.”
The bus itself is emblazoned with “We Are Not Government Property” and the names of thousands of children who some say were injured by vaccines.
Everywhere the bus has traveled, McBride added, the group’s message connecting the infant and child MMR vaccination (measles, mumps and rubella) with the onset of behavioral disorders such as autism has garnered a receptive audience.
But this audience has not come without controversy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a national organization tasked with setting public health policy, has long maintained that vaccines and immunizations are essential to combatting the spread of disease in the United States and around the world.
Former Tuolumne County Public Health Officer Todd Stolp said that he was discouraged “that the messaging” of anti-vaxxers “does not consider the extensive research that has been done to explore the safety of vaccines.”
“Public health has the responsibility to protect the public based on vaccines,” he said. “Does that mean that vaccines are completely safe? No. But any relationship with vaccines and autism has been solidly disproved by the science.”
In the documentary, vaccine researcher Andrew Wakefield directs the story of a “CDC cover-up” revealed by whistleblower Dr. William Thompson surrounding the effects of vaccinations and their relationship to developmental disorders and autism.
In the film, he uses public testimonials and alternative scientific data to assert that the CDC covered-up research information that associated vaccinations with the onset of autism.
Prior to the making of the film, Wakefield’s medical license in the United Kingdom was revoked when he was accused of inventing fraudulent evidence linking vaccinations to autism, according to the New York Times and several other sources.
While in Tuolumne County, McBride said, the traveling van will “make an appearance around lunchtime” in downtown Sonora to garner “as much pedestrian traffic and exposure” as possible.
Later, at 3 p.m., the bus will stop at the Farmory in Columbia.
While at these locations, the Vaxxed crew will disseminate information about their cause, and offer people the opportunity to share testimonials about their experience with vaccinations.
“Whoever wants to show and tell their story, they will accommodate them,” McBride said. The Vaxxed crew will also engage in an “outreach and raising awareness” campaign about a screening of the documentary at Chapel in the Pines in Twain Harte at 3 p.m. Thursday.
Following the film, Vaxxed representatives Polly Tommey and independent researcher Marcella-Piper Terry will conduct a Q&A for the public before introducing public testimonials.
Tommey, one of the film’s producers, has traveled with the bus to a variety of destinations across America, she said, and the response has been palpable at each location they visit.
“They just come to us. They know were coming,” she said. “We just listen and record it and hear their story.”
They made the decision to come to Sonora, she added, when they were contacted about the “same story” they had heard across the country.
“They have children who are developing typically and, after one vaccine or a series of vaccines, they crash into autism. People know quite how serious the situation is,” she said.
At the Sonora, Columbia, and Twain Harte sites, she said, the Vaxx crew will also sell merchandise such as T-shirts and DVDs to “keep us on the road and pay for our gas money and food.”
In a prepared statement, Tuolumne County Public Health Officer Liza Ortiz acknowledged that vaccines can have “side effects,” but added that “in most cases, there are either no side effects or a mild reaction, such as a fever or soreness at the injection site. Serious reactions to vaccines are rare.”
“The Tuolumne County Public Health Department recommends that people of all ages follow the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP),” said Ortiz.
“Following the recommended schedule is the best way for parents to protect their children, families, and communities from serious, life threatening infectious diseases.”
The Tuolumne County Public Health Department has also joined with the California Department of Public Health in recognizing Feb. 12 through 18 as Preteen Vaccine Week.
“We are participating with the rest of the state and the rest of the nation to administer the preteen schedule of routine vaccinations” for whooping cough, meningitis and human papillomavirus (HPV), said Ortiz.
California Senate Bill 277 (SB277), signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on June 30, 2015, removed a series of medical and “personal belief” exemptions required for entry into primary and secondary schools in California. Under the mandate of the law, which went into effect before the 2016-17 school year, children can be barred from attendance to a school if they have not received their full immunization schedule for over 10 childhood diseases including measles, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough).
During preteen vaccine week, Ortiz said, children primarily around age 11 receive a Tdap shot (for protection against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis), a meningitis vaccine, a HPV vaccine and a yearly flu shot.
The MMR shot referenced in the documentary, Ortiz said, is given to children between the ages of 1 and 4, and is verified by a school before a student’s entry into kindergarten or child care.
“The general public may have perceptions that we give a lot of vaccines during the first four years of life, but there are actually booster vaccines and additional vaccines that are needed later,” Ortiz said.
Columbia Union School District Trustee Jo Rodefer, who has seen the “Vaxxed” documentary and is planning to attend the event at the Farmory on Wednesday, said that, despite her personal objections to the law, it is still the district’s duty to enforce it.
“I’m not a fan of the government dictating to parents how they should raise their children and what medical procedures they must inflict upon them. However it is the law,” she said.
Her personal objection to some of the mandated vaccinations, she added, was outlined in the film as a lack of specific research trials conducted to test the effects of certain vaccinations on humans.
“The problem with the whole vaccination issue is the CDC has never done a double-blind study on the safety of vaccines,” she said.
Marcella Piper-Terry, the lead independent researcher on the bus, founded an orgaizaiton called Vaxtruth.org in 2011 while she was studying for her PhD in science. Though she was on the track to eventually work with an organization like the CDC, she said, after her daughter was “injured” following a vaccination, she took it upon herself to evaluate studies on the subject for “problems and if there are biases.”
Throughout her research, she said, she found repeated instances where the validity of conclusions were compromised by the fact that vaccine manufacturers paid for the studies, or medical professionals did not properly conduct their studies in a scientifically “reliable” or “reproducible” way.
“It's really easy to rig studies,” she said. “If you know research statistics, you can pick those things out.”
Piper-Terry will participate in the public Q&A following the presentation of the documentary on Thursday.
But despite the public groundswell of support for the anti-vaxxer movement, Stolp said, “whenever there is a health condition that seems on the rise, people will be receptive to any condition that might be causing it. To focus on one feature would be a big mistake.”
Throughout world history, he added, advances in medical science have eradicated malicious and fatal diseases through the use of vaccines.
Smallpox and polio, he said, are no longer widespread public health issues because of mandated vaccines that keep children immune from contracting those diseases.
“Once suspicion has been raised, it has been very difficult to disprove in the mind of the public,” he said. “Proving a negative is much more difficult than proving a positive.”
Prior to the filming of the documentary, McBride said, the anti-vaxxer group had garnered about 6,400 signatures by Americans who believe their children were vaccine injured, McBride said.
“I think that currently there is inadequate long-term safety data about our current vaccine program that is concerning to me. We really don't have open science or discussion about vaccine safety and the effects of a very aggressive vaccine schedule,” she said. “We need that data to make vaccine policy responsibly.”
It is open to the public to make their own conclusions about vaccinations, Stolp said.
But as always, he added, make sure you know a source is credible and widely accepted as fact.
“In my mind, bottom line, the best antidote to unwarranted fear is education, is health literacy and understanding the science of research and knowing where information is reliable.”