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How the antiscience movement has risen in America—and where it’s headed next

Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, co-director of Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, stands at a podium delivering the Dr. Katherine Kelley Distinguished Lecture at APHL’s 2024 Annual Conference.

By Donna Campisano, specialist, Communications, APHL

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t launch the antiscience, antivax movement in this country, but it certainly escalated it.

And with deadly effects.

Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, co-director of Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and the Dr. Katherine Kelley Distinguished Lecture speaker at APHL’s 2024 Annual Conference, outlined the rise of antiscience activism in this country, the politicization of the movement and the dire consequences it continues to produce.

Hotez, who called the 1,400 public health laboratory professionals in attendance “heroes” who were doing “extraordinary work,” was the keynote speaker at the conference, held May 6-9 in Milwaukee.

Playing “Whack-a-Mole”

Vaccine hesitancy has been around about as long as vaccines themselves. But it really came into the spotlight in this country in the late 1990s, when a now discredited and retracted paper published in the Lancet linked autism in children to the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Hotez, who has worked on developing vaccines for coronaviruses and hookworm anemia and who is the father of a daughter with autism, pointed out that cohort studies were done showing that children who received the MMR vaccine were no more likely to develop autism than those who didn’t get the vaccine.

“That should have been the end of it,” said Hotez, the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “But then came the whack-a-mole syndrome. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., wrote an article in that very important biomedical journal called Rolling Stone that the thimerosal [a compound used as a preservative] in the MMR vaccine caused autism.”

Again, studies debunked the claim, and, again, that should have been the end of it, Hotez said, but then Hollywood stars Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey said that vaccines spaced too-close together were overloading the immune system and causing autism spectrum disorder. That, too, was debunked and then the HPV vaccine came under fire with claims that it caused infertility.

“The goal posts were constantly moving,” said Hotez, author of Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism. “It was becoming exhausting.”

Dr. Hotez signs copies of his book, The Deadly Rise of Anti-science: A Scientist’s Warning, for hundreds of APHL Annual Conference attendees.

Enter politics

Vaccine wariness was particularly prominent in Southern California, Hotez noted, with many parents hanging on to the disproven notion that vaccines cause autism and opting not to vaccinate their children. That led to breakthrough infections of childhood diseases like measles, prompting the California Legislature to shut down vaccine exemptions for school children.

Backlash ensued.

“There was the sentiment that ‘You can’t tell us what to do with our kids,’” Hotez commented. “And that’s where things became entwined with politics.”

In Texas, where Hotez is based, antivaccine groups began getting funding from political action campaigns (PACs) to carry out their antiscience assault.

“I couldn’t care less about your political views,” Hotez said. “But how do you uncouple antiscience from this? How do you say, ‘You’re an American citizen and you can have any political view you want, but don’t adopt this one because it’s so damaging.’ That became a difficult needle to thread.”

The great Texas tragedy

When COVID-19 hit, things went from bad to worse.

Texas was a hard-hit state, with 100,000 of its residents dying from the virus. But in what Hotez calls “the great Texas tragedy,” nearly half of those deaths occurred after COVID-19 vaccines became readily available. Canada, on the other hand—a country with roughly the same population and economical resources as Texas—saw just 51,000 deaths. “Why?” Hotez asked. “Because they got vaccinated. The deaths halted, but in Texas, they plowed through. In the US, there were 200,000 needless deaths—and that’s a conservative estimate—because of this refusal to get vaccinated.”

If the antivax movement in Texas was funded by PACs, Hotez said it was amplified by the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and the conservative news media. “They used rhetoric like, ‘First they’re going to vaccinate you, then they’ll take away your guns and Bibles,’” Hotez said. “And people in Texas accepted it. In their zeal to push back against potential vaccine mandates, they went the next step and falsely discredited the effectiveness and safety of vaccines.”

Revisionist history

Hotez, who has been physically stalked and whose life has been threatened because of his work and outspokenness, pointed out the many Nazi references antivaxxers use when attempting to discredit his work and that of other virologists.

“There are references to medical brown shirts, Nuremberg-like trials and the Holocaust,” he said. “The rhetoric is violent. They portray us as shadowy figures wearing white coats lurking in corners and plotting nefarious things. And we’re now seeing revisionist history. They’re saying, ‘No, no, COVID didn’t kill Americans, the vaccine did. They’re parading prominent scientists in front of C-SPAN cameras at House subcommittee hearings and humiliating them. It’s very Stalin-like, and very damaging to the country.”

Where we’re headed

Antivax sentiment isn’t just an American problem—it’s spreading around the globe. Hotez noted that outbreaks of measles, a disease that once was declared eliminated thanks to vaccination efforts, are popping up around the world. African nations are seeing a growing hesitancy to the malaria vaccine. And Latin America, where pediatricians were once able to keep the antivax movement at bay, are losing their hold.

“I don’t know how things autocorrect quickly,” Hotez said, although he acknowledged that finding ways to combat the disinformation and protect the science were tantamount. “I don’t see things getting better until the fall elections,” he said. “And what happens after that is anyone’s guess.”

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