Written December 7, 2023 by Jennifer Wilczynski, Esq., Staff Attorney, CHILD USA

Fabricating the Truth: Deception Around Vaccines is Putting our Children at Risk

The science of vaccination against childhood diseases was once widely accepted throughout the world, until former UK doctor Andrew Wakefield published now-discredited research claiming that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism. Unfortunately, some fell for Wakefield’s claims, and what was once an unconventional movement has become a prominent political force.

Over the past several years, we have seen a rise in the anti-vax movement around the United States. With the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was even further escalated by politics and misinformation. While adults are welcome to choose what they do with their bodies, there are those who do not have a choice, children.  As this movement grows, children are not able to make their own choices in regard to vaccinations and being able to receive this life saving medicine.  This was all too evident in Texas during the pandemic.

Texas as a Case Study

Since the start of the pandemic, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton spread false information about COVID-19 vaccines. From appearing in interviews to suing Pfizer, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies producing COVID-19 vaccines, Paxton had a clear message to Texans: the science behind vaccines should be disregarded.

Texas has become one of the main battlegrounds of the anti-vax movement. While Texas has one of the highest vaccination rates for childhood diseases across the country, the number of unvaccinated children, due to parental personal beliefs, rose from 2300 in 2003 to 44,000 in 2016. The anti-vax trend in Texas is beyond just childhood diseases, however. The Texan administration made a variety of decisions that endangered the Texan people, including spreading vaccine misinformation.

Paxton made bold accusations about the vaccine including; that Pfizer did not conduct any tests on its vaccine, that they suppressed discussion of the efficacy of the vaccine, and that more vaccinated individuals died from COVID-19 than unvaccinated. Where Paxton received his information from is unclear, especially considering Pfizer published its COVID-19 vaccine trials and the Texas Department of State Health Services clearly states on their “COVID-19 Deaths by Vaccination Status Dashboard” that unvaccinated individuals are “11x more likely to die of a COVID-19 associated illness” than vaccinated individuals. Paxton created further doubt about the vaccine as he rolled back protections put in place during the pandemic, before the vaccine had a chance to be widely administered. As this was happening, he argued that when vaccines became widely available, “the pandemic did not end; it got worse,” noting that “more Americans died in 2021, with Pfizer’s vaccine available, than in 2020, the first year of the pandemic.” However, this argument fails to consider the dangerous decisions that made Texans more susceptible to catching COVID-19, such as a premature lift of the mask mandate in March 2021 when only 7.1% of the approximately 30 million in Texas were fully vaccinated, and Governor Greg Abbott’s Executive Order prohibiting vaccine mandates in October 2021. Both mask and vaccine mandates were considered “vital and necessary means for keeping people safe and healthy during [the] unpredictable pandemic.”

Attorney General Paxton built upon his previous misinformation with an unsubstantiated lawsuit against Pfizer. Paxton accuses Pfizer of engaging in “false, deceptive, and misleading acts and practices by making unsupported claims regarding the company’s COVID-19 vaccine.” Paxton argues that most Americans received a vaccine, with the majority getting a dose of Pfizer’s, which alleges to have a 95% efficacy rate. However, the pandemic did not immediately end upon mass vaccination efforts, which meant that he could claim the vaccine was ineffective. Paxton used the lack of knowledge around vaccines coupled with depleting government trust to convince Texans not to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

As of May 2023, only 9% of Texas children under 4 years of age have received the initial dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, compared to California, which had a significantly more proactive response to COVID-19, at 17%. Dallas County Health and Human Services director Philip Huang believes that misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine is impacting immunizations rates for childhood diseases: the percentage of kids in Texas who have received the polio, hepatitis, and MMR vaccines was between 95%-96% before COVID-19 but is now as low as 91%.

Paxton’s irresponsibility in pushing a false narrative helped to fuel the growing anti-vax trends within Texas, especially among Paxton’s supporters. More than 100 vaccine-related bills were introduced in Texas lawmaking bodies in 2021 alone, during the height of COVID. Putting political gain above science is a dangerous rhetoric. Misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine will cause individuals to hesitate before getting not only the COVID-19 vaccine, but other vaccines as well. Already, there are surges in previously eradicated, preventable diseases.

Other Areas of the Anti-Vax Movement and its Effect on Children

In June of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a health alert for an uptick of measles cases. The majority of those infected were children who had not received the MMR vaccine. The only effective way to prevent the spread of measles is through herd immunity and mass vaccination. In 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that there may be increases of measles infections due to disruptions in standard immunization programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pandemic-related lockdowns caused nearly 40 million children to miss a dose of the measles vaccination. Currently, measles is an ongoing issue throughout central and southern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indian Subcontinent. However, the United States is on track to join that list if vaccination rates continue to fall. Since the 2019-2020 school year, MMR vaccination rates have declined by 2%, leaving approximately 250,000 school children unprotected against measles. However, the CDC found no decline in vaccination coverage associated with the pandemic. As such, American children are not losing access to the MMR vaccine due to global challenges. Instead, American parents are making dangerous and uninformed decisions for their vulnerable children regarding vaccinations.

The anti-vax movement is prominent among religious groups. With religious rights falling under explicit protection of the Constitution, religious exemptions for vaccines allow “parents to exempt their children from vaccination if it contradicts their sincere religious beliefs.” However, governments have limited resources to determine if claimed religious beliefs are sincere or “suddenly held beliefs invented merely to avoid vaccination.” Texas, as one of the 45 states with religious exemptions, furthers its lackluster vaccine policies with a conscientious exemption for childhood vaccines, meaning “Texas parents don’t have to have a medical or religious reason to stop their kids from getting vaccinated.” In the past decade, the number of kindergarten students who were vaccine exempt rose from 1.15% to 3.63%, with its most dramatic increase of nearly 1% between the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school year.

Politicians fuel the anti-vax movement by affirming societal doubts about vaccinations and pushing an anti-vax agenda. In 2019, Texas lawmaker Jonathan Stickland declared vaccines as “sorcery” and “dangerous” during a criticism of vaccine expert Peter Hotez. Stickland accused Hotez and the vaccine industry as profiting off consumers and requiring mandates to ensure vaccine success. Hotez, expressed concern due to the unprecedented resurgence in measles cases, stating that the “children of Texas have been placed in harm’s way for the financial gain of special [and] outside interest groups.” After the onset of COVID-19, Texas lawmakers introduced legislation removing vaccination requirements in schools and are attempting to enshrine vaccine removal as an inalienable right.

As MMR vaccine rates fall and measles infections rise, the spread of misinformation and fearmongering among influential figures in the United States will only put American children at further risk. As misinformation and anti-vaccine lobbyists work their way into American politics, preventable diseases like measles and polio risk spreading as quickly as COVID-19 due to more Americans lacking these essential vaccines. It is imperative that the American people can rely on their political leadership to share the truth of public health issues, rather than fall victim to the dangerous reality that fabricating the truth about vaccines will create.

CHILD USA and the Fight to Protect Children’s Access to Life Saving Medical Care

The fight to prevent the medical neglect of children who have their access to vaccines barred by political interests has been ongoing for over a century. CHILD USA is on the frontlines of ensuring access to lifesaving vaccines through gathering research and testimony on vaccine-related issues. CHILD USA identified states with immunization exemptions for school-aged children, revealing unmistakable evidence that most of the country is failing our children by having lax exemption laws. Currently, only five states have no non-medical exemption laws for required childhood vaccines. Part of the fight against the anti-vax movement is to oppose the rampant misinformation plaguing American society. CHILD USA focuses on disseminating the truth about vaccines and debunking the fearmongering cries of the anti-vax movement, such as sharing the value of vaccine mandates and how vaccine exemptions put our kids in further danger.