The Rising Influence of the Anti-Vaccine Movement in State Legislatures

By Gabin Villière , CNN Week

Updated 01:32 Am December 31, 2023

BATON ROUGE — A surge of lawmakers who are against vaccine mandates are winning state legislature elections amidst a decrease in childhood vaccination rates nationwide and the reemergence of preventable deadly diseases. These victories are part of a political backlash against pandemic restrictions and the spread of misinformation regarding vaccine safety in the fight against the coronavirus.

In Louisiana, 29 candidates endorsed by Stand for Health Freedom, a national organization that opposes mandatory vaccinations, were successful in the state's off-year elections this autumn. Fred Mills, the retiring Republican chairman of the Louisiana Senate's health and welfare committee, expressed concern that anti-vaccine policies that jeopardize lives will have a greater chance of passing once newly-elected lawmakers are sworn in come January, particularly as more than a dozen Republican moderates like himself leave office.
Louisiana's shift reflects the increasing influence of the anti-vaccine movement in state legislatures across the country, as bills that previously failed to progress are now making it to the legislative floor for voting. Since spring, Tennessee lawmakers have eliminated all vaccine requirements for homeschooled children, Iowa Republicans have passed a bill removing the obligation for schools to educate students about the HPV vaccine, and the Florida legislature has preemptively banned school districts from mandating coronavirus vaccines. This move has raised concerns among health advocates that further restrictions on vaccines may follow.
"Politics is going to win over medicine," said Mills, a pharmacist who has opposed or defeated bills that sought to limit vaccine access and promote vaccine exemptions in schools and workplaces. However, after serving 13 years in the Senate, Mills has reached the state's three-term limit. His seat will be filled by Blake Miguez in January, an ultraconservative endorsed by Stand for Health Freedom. Miguez, who is currently a state representative, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

While the anti-vaccine movement was initially driven by left-leaning activists, it has gained momentum from conservatives since the start of the pandemic. Leah Wilson, co-founder and executive director of Stand for Health Freedom, stated that their influence has grown in response to pandemic-related requirements. Wilson explained that prior to 2020, medical mandates primarily affected school-aged children, university students, and healthcare workers. However, the pandemic expanded the reach of mandates to impact everyone, leading more people to advocate for protecting their rights.
Mills noted that the health and welfare committee in Louisiana devolved into what he called the "health and warfare" committee as the pandemic unfolded, with some of his colleagues disregarding scientific evidence and succumbing to political pressure. Republican legislators denounced what they perceived as government overreach and pledged to dismantle public health mandates regarding masking and vaccines. This rhetoric seeped into the broader vaccine debate, providing support for legislators like Beryl Amedee, a recently reelected state representative who had previously sponsored anti-vaccine legislation with limited success.

As Amedee begins her third term, she believes that her bills will gain traction in the upcoming legislative session with the backing of "liberty-loving" colleagues who oppose government mandates. She clarified that she is not "anti-vaccine," but rather supports everyone having the freedom to make their own health decisions. Amedee attributed the catalyst for this surge in anti-vaccine sentiment to the COVID-19 pandemic, stating that moderate candidates did not receive the majority of votes.
The pandemic has fueled anti-vaccine sentiment, resulting in a decline in childhood vaccination rates. Nationally, the proportion of kindergartners whose parents opted them out of vaccines reached a new high of 3 percent during the 2022-2023 school year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This alarming trend has raised concerns among public health experts.

Last year, Columbus, Ohio, and other communities with low vaccination rates experienced a decline in kindergarten vaccination rates. In Louisiana, the vaccination rate for kindergarteners dropped by nearly two percentage points to 89 percent by the 2022-2023 school year, which is well below the 95 percent threshold required for herd immunity against measles.
Crystal Rommen, the director of Louisiana Families for Vaccines, a group founded to combat anti-vaccine sentiment, emphasized the importance of community cooperation in protecting each other from vaccine-preventable diseases. She stated that individuals and communities have the right to live free from these diseases.

However, a poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania revealed that the belief in vaccine safety among Americans has decreased by six percentage points to 71 percent since 2021. Additionally, the number of people believing in debunked claims linking vaccines to autism and toxins is on the rise.

The anti-vaccine advocates have become so vocal in legislative hearings and on social media that they often overshadow the majority of Louisiana parents who do vaccinate their children. This has led to medical experts declining invitations to testify due to fear of retaliation. Some legislators are also swayed by the loud and potentially violent anti-vaccine fervor generated by a minority of constituents.
In Iowa, conservative lawmakers supported by Republican Governor Kim Reynolds passed legislation in May to remove the requirement for middle and high schools to teach students about the availability of the HPV vaccine. This is concerning because Iowa has the highest and fastest-growing rates of oral cavity and pharynx cancer, which can be caused by HPV.

Jeff Shipley, a Republican state representative who supported the bill, criticized the HPV vaccine as a "shoddy big pharma medical product" driven by profit rather than improving human health. However, according to the CDC, the vaccine can prevent up to 90 percent of HPV-related cancers.

Democratic Iowa state representative and physician Megan Srinivas expressed worry about the erosion of preventive tools against HPV-related cancers due to the removal of the vaccine education requirement. She questioned the decision-making process based on internet conspiracy theories rather than peer-reviewed, nonpartisan, scientifically-based data.

Not only are legislators with anti-vaccine views increasing in number, but they are also assuming positions of power. In Louisiana, Patrick McMath, expected to replace Mills as head of the health committee in January, previously proposed a bill that would have made it illegal to restrict access to public places based on vaccination status.

In Arizona, freshman legislator Janae Shamp, the vice chairwoman of the Senate health and human services committee, was motivated to run for office after being fired from her job as a nurse for refusing to take the coronavirus vaccine. Shamp plans to reintroduce her failed bill that aimed to exempt employees from workplace coronavirus or flu vaccine requirements. She claims that her actions align with the demands of her constituents.

Shamp, along with over 380 elected officials and political candidates, signed a pledge by the influential anti-vaccine group Informed Consent Action Network to oppose "coerced government medicine and forced medical procedures," referring to vaccine or other health mandates at various levels of government.

The organization mentioned in the article has been successful in suing to establish vaccine exemptions for schoolchildren in Mississippi, despite the state having high childhood vaccination rates. They have also created model legislation to expand vaccine exemptions, which has been introduced as bills in several states including Arizona, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.

The group's chief operating officer, Catharine Layton, stated that legislators from various political backgrounds are interested in protecting the right to informed consent and bodily autonomy. They are hopeful that model bills that safeguard informed consent will pass in the future.

In Michigan, anti-vaccine views are becoming more normalized. Eleven lawmakers recently honored Andrew Wakefield, a discredited anti-vaccine activist who falsely linked autism to vaccines. Some of these legislators were elected after the pandemic began, including Angela Rigas, a hairdresser who was ticketed for protesting pandemic mandates.

State representative Rigas claims that this movement is not "anti-vaccine" but about freedom and the ability of parents to choose what they believe is best for their children.

At a conference held by Children's Health Defense, a group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a legislative aide from Michigan praised Rigas and her colleagues for their stance on medical freedom.

Children's Health Defense, which did not respond to a request for comment, has sued media companies, including The Washington Post, alleging violation of federal antitrust laws in suppressing "misinformation."

In Louisiana, anti-vaccine forces have gained traction since the start of the pandemic. In 2021, state health officials expressed concern when Kennedy referred to the coronavirus vaccine as the "deadliest vaccine ever made" during a state House hearing. State Health Officer Joseph Kanter condemned false claims made at the hearing as the intentional spread of health disinformation.

Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who has vetoed anti-vaccine legislation in the past, warned about the dangerous precedent that twisting vaccine science could set. However, political backlash led to the demise of the health department's proposal.

Kennedy was invited to speak to lawmakers by State Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican who also testified against the proposal. Kennedy's views on vaccines found support among Republicans as he launched his independent bid for president.

Kennedy's press office stated that he is not "anti-vaccine" but stood by his previous comments about the coronavirus vaccine and repeated misleading statements about childhood vaccines.

Landry sued the federal government last year, alleging collusion with social media companies to suppress the views of anti-vaccine activists. He also submitted a supporting brief in the Children's Health Defense lawsuit against The Washington Post.

In the upcoming transition of power, Landry has been elected as the new governor, replacing Edwards. Even before officially assuming office, Landry's influence is already noticeable. Internal documents from the state health department in November and December, along with interviews with two employees, reveal a decrease in efforts to promote vaccines. The incoming administration, led by Landry, has limited public information regarding vaccine availability and uptake. Employees, who spoke anonymously due to fears of retaliation, claim that the new communications team halted a campaign to promote vaccination and highlight the state's high childhood immunization rates. However, Deanna Wallace, the new communications director for the health department, denies these allegations. She states that there have been no changes and that they continue to collaborate with various organizations to promote and facilitate access to vaccinations. With the shift in political leadership, Louisiana State Representative Amedee plans to reintroduce legislation opposing vaccine mandates and expanding exemptions. Amedee believes that the change in administration will increase the likelihood of these bills passing due to their emphasis on personal liberties. Additionally, many moderate Republican colleagues, including Mills, who had previously opposed such measures, will no longer be present to impede their progress.

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