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Eight Hours in a Room with the Anti-Vaxxers

March 14, 2019

On March 12, I went to give testimony at a hearing to support Maine’s L.D. 798, a bill to end non-medical exemptions to the state’s vaccination requirements. Little did I know, the issue has become so heated, that the office building that houses the committee room was packed to the gills with advocates on both sides of the issue, and even though I arrived plenty early, I would wind up waiting eight hours before it was my turn to speak.

As is my wont, I tweeted some of my thoughts and reactions throughout the day, and if you follow the hours-long thread, you’ll witness me become progressively punchy. Eight hours without food or water sitting in an overheated and overcrowded room was unpleasant enough. But that was nothing compared to the roller coaster of anger and despair I felt as I bore witness to the parade of lunacy, ignorance, cynicism, denial, and gross entitlement represented by the anti-vaxxers speaking in opposition to the bill.

There were parents who had been shaken by what they believed were vaccine-induced injuries to their kids. There were activists who railed against the great conspiracy of the pharmaceutical industry. There were people who opposed vaccines because they couldn’t pronounce the ingredients. (Pronunciation of polysyllabic words in general seemed to be a signature challenge for the anti-vax crowd.) There were “naturopaths” who presented their fake credentials as though they meant anything. There were religious zealots who warned of the “aborted fetuses” in vaccines (how do they fit them in the needles, I wondered).

There were dozens of parents, reeking of privilege, dismissing the threat posed by measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, and other highly infectious diseases. They claimed that it was the vaccinated kids who in fact posed the greatest health risk to the immunocompromised (assuming they could pronounce that word) and should therefore be kept home from school. They claimed they were being discriminated against for their religious beliefs. They claimed their parental rights were being violated. They claimed their religious freedom was being violated. An astounding number of them said that they’d be forced to move out of Maine if the law were to pass (which seemed like a fine idea to me).

Yes, several folks compared mandated vaccinations to Nazi medical experiments and yellow armbands, and, I kid you not, one woman who claimed to be a journalist said that Amazon’s removal of anti-vax propaganda from its platform was akin to Kristallnacht

…which she couldn’t pronounce.

And there were several folks, including actual legislators, who claimed that vaccines cause autism. As someone with autism, I found this particularly galling. Aside from the fact that it’s an obvious lie, I resented that the mere existence of people like me was so horrifying to these people that they use it to scare others away from that which keeps kids from needlessly dying. It turns people with autism into props for political theatre, and worsens the stigma with which we already struggle.

It was a sad and sorry state of affairs. Pro-vaccine supporters of the bill included state health officials, real doctors, nurses, teachers, scientists, and parents from the reality-based community, and they did their best to debunk nonsense, clear up common misconceptions, and show their deep and sincere concern for the children of Maine through their advocacy. But I fear they were drowned out by the madness.

Below is my testimony, more or less as delivered within the impossibly brief 3-minute window we were given. It’s not a game-changer, and I don’t kid myself to think that it changed anyone’s mind. But at least is was one more voice for sanity.

As I walked out of the room after speaking, a man who looked to be a bit younger than me held the door, and pursued me down the hall, red in the cheeks and speak-shouting to me, “I want you to know that I thought your speech was pretty bad. Your opinions are bad.”

I had been there for eight hours, but I felt as though I had aged about 800 years.

*  *  *

Testimony to the Maine Legislature Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs

My name is Paul Fidalgo, a resident of Saco, and I am here to support L.D. 798. I am the father of two children, ages 9 and 6, both in the public school system.

I am also the Communications Director for the Center for Inquiry, a national nonprofit organization that seeks to foster a secular society based on reason, science, and humanist values.

I support L.D. 798 for two reasons: First, public policy should be based on facts and evidence. Not based on anecdote, conspiracy theory, or the YouTube recommendation algorithm. Second, religious exemptions to public health laws undermine our constitutional separation of church and state by privileging religious beliefs over our public interest in health and safety.

The evidence in support of vaccines is in, and it is crystal clear: Vaccines are safe and effective. High rates of vaccination protect the most vulnerable Mainers, including children, the elderly, the sick, and those of us who can’t receive vaccinations for legitimate medical reasons like a severe allergic reaction. (And by the way, that includes me.)

But here in Maine non-medical exemptions have increased since 2009, endangering our children’s health by making it easier for preventable diseases to spread. [1], [2]

There are consequences when people claim non-medical exemptions to vaccination. In Washington State, a large number of exemptions has led to a measles outbreak that continues to sicken and endanger residents.

When we talk about the importance of getting vaccinated, this point can’t be made strongly enough: It’s not just about you. It’s not even just about one’s own kids. Your philosophical objections do not occur in a vacuum. My kids are vaccinated because it protects them from dangerous diseases and because it protects others.

As to religious exemptions to public health laws: I unequivocally support every person’s right to freedom of and from religion. But that freedom should never be an excuse to put other people at risk. Viruses don’t care what religion you believe in.

Sadly, religious exemptions are also ripe for abuse. One prominent website explains “how to get a religious exemption like a boss,” coaching people in the use of convincing religious rhetoric. The author warns vaccine deniers not to delve into their actual objections, those unrelated to religious belief. She says:

Anytime you find yourself talking about anything other than your religious beliefs, start over. No talking about the effects of toxins on the body. …your argument needs to be religion-based, so stick to the Bible.[4]

It is time to end religious exemptions to our state’s vaccination laws. It is time for all of us to recognize that privately held beliefs must never be used to jeopardize the health of our children or anyone else’s. I’m happy to answer any questions that you have, and to provide the committee with the resources that I’ve cited today in my testimony. Thank you.

[1] Researchers reviewed all the cases of measles in the U.S. from 2000-2015. They found that almost 42 percent of people who contracted measles had a nonmedical exemption from vaccination. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5007135/#R12

[2] https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1002578

[4] https://www.livingwhole.org/how-to-get-a-vaccine-religious-exemption/