Fake News About the Congressional Hearings on Vaccines
Mar 08, 2019

This guest post has been written by Dr. Dorit Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, CA.  Dr. Reiss contributes to various blogs and law journals, utilizing her legal expertise to examine the social policies of immunization.

Anti-vaccine sites misled their followers into believing federal hearings looking at measles outbreaks were aimed at creating federal mandates, leading many activists to go into the expense and trouble of going to Washington, D.C. on short notice for a hearing in which they were not able to participate as the witness list was chosen by the Committee and such hearings are not a venue for public participation and in which mandates were not on the table. Maybe it is time for some of these followers to reconsider whether these sites deserve to be followed and trusted.

2018 saw 372 cases of measles making it the second highest year of measles cases since the disease’s elimination in 2000. But 2019 is shaping up to be even worse: As of February 28, 2019 we have already seen 206 cases in outbreaks spanning eleven states. Of a disease we should not be seeing. A disease that is highly contagious, potentially fatal, and extremely costly to contain.

In response, two Congressional Hearings were announced.

On February 27, the House Committee’s on Energy and Commerce’s subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing on “Confronting a Growing Public Health Threat: Measles Outbreaks in the U.S.

On March 5, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) held its own hearing titled “Vaccines Save Lives: What is Driving Preventable Diseases Outbreaks?

Anti-vaccine sites and groups immediately jumped to action, telling their readers that the goal of the hearing was to impose a federal mandate. They may have been fueled by comments by the (now resigned) FDA Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, that the federal government would act on mandates if the states do not.  It is unclear what Mr. Gottlieb had in mind, because vaccine mandates have traditionally been a state issue, and deviating from that would be tricky. At any rate, nothing indicates that the Congressmen calling the hearings – which are not part of the administration – even considered mandates.

For example, on February 22, 2019 the Children’s Health Defense, an organization run, among others, by anti-vaccine activists Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and JB Handley, posted a call to action warning against “Threats to end religious and philosophical vaccine exemptions” at the federal level.

Besides calling on people to call or write to their Congressmembers, the article called on people to attend in person: We absolutely must have representation at these hearings. It’s crucial that we have as many parents and advocates as possible in attendance at both. The article ended with a message that could not fail to frighten parents who think vaccines are bad, saying that: “The future of medical freedom is at stake. Ensuring that our federally elected representatives hear from all of us through emails, faxes and phone calls to both their DC and district offices has never been more important than it is at this moment. If we are to maintain medical freedom and protect the health of generations to come, we need to raise our united voices now!

Again, the hearing was about measles outbreak. Mandates were not on the table.

Similarly, the National Vaccine Information Center put out a call for people to attend the hearings, and though the organization did not expressly say mandates are on the table in the hearings, their call strongly implied it. An email to members through their advocacy portals reinforced the call, saying:

Plan on attending the hearings on February 27th and March 5th and calling and emailing members of the committees to express your support for vaccine exemptions and informed consent rights in light of the upcoming hearings.

Other pages, organizations, and activists echoed this call. Reacting to that, hundreds of anti-vaccine activists travelled to attend the March 5 hearing. Many of them asked for funding from fellow activists. Who knows how many activists, in a panic, took time off, got into expenses, or donated scarce resources to support members.

The hearings were not about mandates. They were about measles outbreaks, concerns about them, and the difficulties they create. While vaccines were lauded, and the question of how to address vaccine hesitancy was on the table, the discussion was about improving funding, responding to misinformation, and providing better provider counseling. Practical suggestions involved funding physician counseling on vaccines, more money for outbreak control and education. Here, again, is the link to the house hearing. Look at the videos. Federal mandates were not proposed. Not on the table.

The topic of school mandates was raised in the Senate hearing by Dr. Rand Paul, who used his time in the hearing to express his opposition to them generally (even though they were not proposed) and to government coercion, while still expressing support for vaccines. In response, Dr. Bill Cassidy expressed his support for mandates.  Neither Senator addressed federal mandates, nor was any operational suggestion made on that score.

There was very little space in the small meeting room, which was designed in the 1940s. Each witness is typically offered the opportunity to have a person pre-seated in the room to support them. Anti-vaccine activists who traveled to D.C. arrived hours prior to the hearing and were required to wait for a long time in the halls.  Only a small number were able to enter the main room, while the rest of the members of the public were offered a secondary room next door to witness the hearing via satellite screen. Hearings do not offer an opportunity for public comment.

Telling these people to invest their time, money and effort for an event where the topic of discussion was not what the anti-vaccine activists were claiming, must have been highly frustrating for those who responded to the call to action and was just unfair.


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