WASHINGTON — They’re calling it a “revolution for truth.”
Dozens of activists who reject the robust science supporting vaccinations held a march and rally Friday, capped off with a speech from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. A noted and vociferous vaccine skeptic, Kennedy accused the media, drug companies, and the government of a conspiracy to cover up supposed links between vaccines and autism — an allegation that has been thoroughly discredited.
The day of demonstrations followed an intense lobbying push on Thursday. Activists held 80 meetings on Capitol Hill, many of them with staffers for members of Congress, according to Irene Pi, an organizer from Arizona. Among their goals: Push President Trump to establish a vaccine safety committee led by Kennedy.
“We’re being heard, and we’re going to enact change,” activist Jena Dalpez said.
A vast body of scientific research shows that vaccines do not cause autism and are essential in preventing the spread of potentially fatal infectious diseases. When too many parents fail to vaccinate their children, it can jeopardize entire communities — with people whose immune systems are compromised due to illness or chemotherapy most at risk.
Advocates who reject that research have gained confidence in recent months, buoyed in part by the election of President Trump, who has a long history of raising unsubstantiated doubts about vaccine safety.
Casting doubt on the triumph of the polio vaccine
Still, their showing was modest: A morning rally in front of the White House drew a small crowd in the dozens — certainly not in the hundreds.
One advocate held a sign saying “Polio was a false flag” and “Jonas Salk was NOT a hero,” referencing to the virologist who developed the first safe and effective polio vaccine that experts consider to be one of history’s greatest public health triumphs.
Several others held signs saying “No vaccine mandates.” In fact, while states generally require children to be immunized before enrolling in school, there are no federal mandates, and no plans to impose them. All states let parents opt out of vaccinating their children for medical reasons, most allow exemptions for religious reasons, and 18 allow opt outs for philosophical reasons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Organizers had originally planned to spend the afternoon Friday rallying in front of the Capitol, but rain and the threat of thunderstorms prompted them to move to a downtown hotel. There, during a rally that lasted all afternoon, the delighted crowd cheered speakers who railed against vaccines. The tone was deeply emotional and paranoid — and the statements often inconsistent with facts.
“You need to fire your doctors, fire your legislators! And stand up for your children!” Dr. Paul Thomas, an advocate from Oregon, said to rapturous applause.
For his part, Kennedy railed against the expert doctors and scientists who make evidence-based recommendations about childhood vaccine schedules.
And he spoke in loaded terms about autism. He suggested autism “is a symptom of media malpractice.” He scoffed at scientists who say that a mild increase in autism rates is in large part due to increased awareness and expanded diagnostic criteria. “Missing one of these children is like missing a train wreck,” he said, questioning where all the adults with autism are.
The crowd loved it: At some points they cheered so loudly his words were drowned out.
After his remarks, Kennedy darted into an elevator, telling a filmmaker and a reporter that he had a flight to catch and no time for questions.
A lobbying push in shades of red, white, and blue
The protests drew activists from across the US, including Dalpez, who flew in from Washington state. She became involved in the cause after her two school-aged sons were diagnosed with autism. (Experts say parents often wrongly blame autism on vaccines, but there’s no evidence of a link.) A lifelong liberal, Dalpez said she voted for Trump even though she disagrees with him on just about everything — except for his doubts about vaccine safety.
For their lobbying day on Thursday, the activists had agreed to wear shades of the American flag: Red if they’d had a loved one injured by vaccines, and white if they were there in solidarity. (They were supposed to wear blue if a loved one had died from a vaccine injury, but STAT didn’t see anyone in the group wearing that color.)
Dressed in a red sweater and seated in a wheelchair, activist Marcella Piper-Terry teared up as she talked about her own chronic pain condition and her young adult daughter’s seizures and Asperger’s syndrome. She believes those injuries stem from vaccines.
Then Piper-Terry was off to navigate the tunnels and long hallways of the office building, en route to her first congressional meeting of the day, in the office of a representative from Arizona.
High on the lobbying agenda: Pushing members of Congress to encourage President Trump to establish a new vaccine safety commission. Back in January, Kennedy emerged from a meeting with Trump saying that such a commission would be established, and he’d lead it. That announcement set off alarms among public health experts; Trump’s team soon moved to quiet the frenzy by saying no decisions had been made.
Kennedy later said, however, that he was confident the vaccine safety commission would move forward.
He did not mention the commission or Trump during his speech on Friday.
The activists organizing the “Revolution for Truth” also want Congress to repeal a Reagan-era law that had the effect of moving lawsuits over vaccine injuries out of the civil courts by setting up a separate compensation system. People can get compensation through that system if they’re able to meet strict requirements in showing a vaccine did, in fact, cause their injury. Activists oppose the system in large part because autism is not on the list of recognized injuries that can sometimes stem from vaccines.
Other key goals: Getting Trump to take vaccine safety out of the purview of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And nudging him to issue an executive order banning the government from purchasing vaccines that use the mercury-based preservative thimerosal. That preservative has never been in many key vaccines and was taken out of other childhood vaccines in 2001. Research shows it is not harmful in low doses.
This story has been updated to add comments from Kennedy’s speech.