When anti-vaccine activists gather in the shadow of the big black “Vaxxed” bus, it’s easy to spot the guy who’s there without an invitation.
He’s the protester holding a homemade sign declaring that vaccines save lives. He’s often wearing a T-shirt with the name of the polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, stylized like the logo of a rock band. You might even spot him filming a lighthearted video updating his online followers on his quest to chase down the Vaxxed bus tour, which grew out of a controversial anti-vaccination documentary with the same name.
Craig Egan estimates he’s put 7,000 miles on his Toyota Prius subcompact this summer following the bus tour everywhere from the Pacific Northwest to Missouri. And no, he does not mind being called a troll. In fact, he embraces it. He even plans his T-shirts to be as annoying as possible.
“I enjoy being, frankly, a pain in the ass to anti-vaxxers,” Egan told STAT last week from the road, where he was trekking from one Vaxxed event in Dayton, Ohio, in pursuit of another one in Lansing, Mich.
And a pain he is.
Polly Tommey, the Vaxxed producer who’s running the bus tour, called Egan “an irritation” undertaking “an absolutely pointless exercise” because he’s protesting in front of parents who did vaccinate their children but now regret it.
The anti-vaccine website Age of Autism went farther, calling Egan “a miscreant with suspect funding who boasts online about his national stalking of the bus and its grieving visitors.”
Egan, a 42-year-old Uber driver, isn’t deterred. He makes an unusual activist: He’s spent most of his career in technology sales, never working in medicine or public health. He took his own daughters to be vaccinated, but never thought much about the issue until about five years ago, when he started defending vaccines in arguments with strangers on Facebook.
He even set off on his road trip on something of a whim. At the start of the summer, he protested the Vaxxed tour when it stopped in his hometown of Tacoma, Wash. That, he said, sparked the idea: “Wouldn’t it be funny if I followed them around like the Grateful Dead?”
The Vaxxed bus tour has been stopping at public parks, chiropractor’s offices, and private residences across the country to film and post online interviews with local parents who believe their children were injured by vaccines. (Experts say such parents often wrongly blame autism on vaccines, but the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that there’s no link.)
It’s part of a recent surge in anti-vaccination activism spurred in part by optimism after the election of President Trump, who has a long history of voicing unfounded doubts about the safety of vaccines.
But Trump has filled top health posts in his administration with unequivocal vaccine supporters. And plans for a vaccine safety commission to be led by noted vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. appear to be stalled.
Although they haven’t yet influenced federal policy, anti-vaccination activists have sown dangerous doubts in the minds of some parents, public health experts say.
In the sizable Somali immigrant community in Minnesota, measles broke out earlier this year after childhood vaccination rates plummeted amid frequent visits from vaccine skeptics. Andrew Wakefield, the discredited British researcher who spurred the anti-vaccination movement and also directed “Vaxxed,” came to speak at least twice. Since the measles outbreak, the anti-vaccine activists in Minnesota have only stepped up their campaign.
Standing outside for hours on end
On the other side, Egan’s energized, too.
His audience isn’t big — even his most popular YouTube video from the tour has only about 1,000 online views — but it’s passionate. His supporters have funded his travel with more than $11,000 in donations to his GoFundMe campaign. (Egan has pledged to donate one-third of those funds to Voices for Vaccines, a nonprofit parent group. Meanwhile, he’s given up weeks of income, because he’s only licensed to drive for Uber in Washington state and therefore can’t pick up passengers on his road trip.)
At various points, Egan has been joined in protesting by medical professionals and parents, including those of an immune-compromised child whose safety depends on a critical mass of community members getting vaccinated.
But often, he’s the only protester at Vaxxed events, backed up by a buddy or his girlfriend to help him record his videos.
“I think he’s doing it for the notoriety,” said Wayne Rohde, a Minnesota parent who believes his 19-year-old son’s severe autism was caused by vaccination and was unhappy to see Egan protesting at the Minneapolis event.
Egan’s protests tend to be the mild variety: Mostly, he just stands outside the Vaxxed bus, for hours on end. But he acknowledges that one time he went too far: At an event in Helena, Mont., he sounded a bullhorn and held a sign urging passing drivers to honk for vaccines. His goal, he said, was to disrupt the Vaxxed team’s broadcasts of parent interviews.
Then he learned that he had upset a mother who had been inside the bus telling the story of the death of her baby, which she attributed to vaccination. He later issued a public apology.
Worst hide & seek players ever.
A game of cat and mouse
Egan’s not sure his road trip has changed anyone’s mind. But he’s having fun — and a big part of that fun comes in the thrill of the chase. That’s because as the summer has progressed, organizers of the Vaxxed tour have stopped publicly announcing the specific location in each city where they’re headed.
They’ve also made it harder for him to protest by holding more events in chiropractors’ offices and private residences rather than public parks.
While Tommey said she’d rather Egan not be there, she denies that she and her team are trying to evade him. “He’d love to think that,” she said with a note of exasperation.
The real reason the tour isn’t making its locations public, she said, is that it would draw too many parents with vaccine-injured children. And the Wi-Fi isn’t good enough in public parks to stream the interviews.
The result: Egan’s quest to track down the Vaxxed bus has become a game of cat and mouse.
Take Minneapolis. Egan knew the bus was heading there, but wasn’t sure where it would set up.
So he got creative: He had his girlfriend, Sharon Schroeder, send an email to the Vaxxed team posing under a fake name as a vaccine-injured woman. Schroeder described her experience of getting the HPV vaccine, which is recommended for preteen boys and girls, and then going through the normal signs of puberty, such as enlargement of the breasts. Could she come share her story in Minneapolis?
The response: Absolutely. The tour manager sent her a time slot and address — but urged her to “PLEASE keep this confidential as we want to avoid the troll, Craig, who is following us around.”
The email continued: “It would be a smoother event if he could never find us.”
When the big bus pulled up, Egan was there waiting for them.
Using humor to make a point
Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious diseases specialist who directs the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said he sees a responsible mainstream media and popular evidence-minded bloggers as the two most important forces dispelling misinformation about vaccines.
He sees Egan in a third category — which includes big-name comedians like Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert and everyman protestors like Egan, all of whom use humor to take aim at anti-vaccine advocates. On Facebook, for instance, Egan lists his occupation as a “Shill” at XXL Pharma — a tongue-in-cheek nod to the frequent allegation that pro-vaccine advocates are in the pocket of Big Pharma. Egan also runs a Facebook page called “Embarrassed Cousins of Proud Parents of Unvaccinated Children.”
“I give him credit. I think he’s brave,” Offit said. He plans to meet with Egan for the first time this week.
Some vaccine opponents have made a point of being kind to Egan. And he’s documented that in his videos.
In Idaho Falls, Idaho, he broadcast himself delightedly opening a gift from the local anti-vaccination activists — a care package stuffed with non-GMO candy, organic apple cinnamon fruit leather, and pens decorated like syringes. “It doesn’t have to be a confrontational, uncivil event,” he allowed.
And in Bozeman, Mont., a mother who questions vaccine safety brought Egan and his buddy some burgers. (Egan’s a vegetarian, but he gratefully indulged in some fries.)
But later that day, the fight was back on. Egan had gotten into an argument about vaccine safety with an assistant to a “Vaxxed” producer. Their conversation turned sour when Egan refused to continue the debate unless his opponent would send him evidence to support his claims.
“That guy was really just trying to corner me,” he said in a video broadcast, “and I’m not going to play that with him.”