A conference in Stowe featuring anti-vaccination advocates is attracting negative backlash from the community, and raising concern that local parents could skip vaccinating their kids.
The event, called "Hope and Healing for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders" is scheduled to take place at Stowe High School, Saturday May 20.
Local chiropractor Dr. Bradley Rauch, who is organizing the event, subtitled it: "Raising Healthy Children Naturally." He says he's concerned with the rise of chronic illnesses among children, and is starting a new business in Stowe called the Vermont Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders.
The seminar, like the center, intends to promote alternatives to pharmaceuticals and mainstream health care.
"So what we’re doing is, we’ve gotten six world-class speakers, from different disciplines, to come to little old Stowe, Vermont, and talk about solutions," Rauch explains.
The announced speakers include well-known and controversial anti-vaccine advocates including Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree and Sherri Tenpenny. Late Thursday, Rauch learned Wakefield won't be coming to Stowe after all, and will instead Skype into the conference.
Tom Rogers is a parent of two young children in Stowe. He says it is the speakers that have some people in town concerned.
"So the biggest thing that worries myself and a lot of the other parents and doctors, families in town that I've spoken to is the actual people that are coming to this event," he says. "It's not about the subject. It's not about this discussion. This is, of course, a really worthy subject for people to be talking about. But it's the individuals that have been invited and some of the ideas that they represent."
Rauch says of the seminar agenda, “You know, we’ll certainly talk about the problems. But we’re really interested in empowering people with information. Because the bottom line is that, you know what, you’ve got choices."
But some people in Stowe have a different take.
“The bottom line is that this is a true public health hazard, that Stowe, Vermont is being targeted by the anti-vaxers and it could have a devastating effect on our children," says Dr. Bob Arnot.
"So I spent years in Africa as a correspondent for CBS and NBC News, as a board member for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Save the Children, other groups," says Arnot. "And I have seen relief workers risk and lose their lives to try and vaccinate children, because it’s so terribly important to eradicate these diseases. We’ve had tremendous successes in Africa. So it is ironic to me that right here in the United States you have children that aren’t being vaccinated and suffering because of it."
Arnot is the father of a preschooler, and he, Rogers and other parents of young children in Stowe point to the measles outbreak now happening in Minnesota, where vaccination rates among the Somali community plummeted due to concerns about autism. Vermont Department of Health Immunization Program Manager Christine Finley says the Stowe parents' concerns are justified.
"We know that misinformation can lead to lower vaccine rates and that can result in disease outbreaks," she says. "And I think its being showcased right now in Minnesota, where the Somali population had concern about autism and stopped using MMR [Measles, Mumps and Rubella] vaccine before age three, or not vaccinating at all, and their rates dropped to 42 percent. And now they're in the midst of an outbreak."
Finley says around 95 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated to protect against a measles outbreak. She says figures released this week show that 94 percent of Vermont K-12 students in public and independent schools have received all the state-required vaccines.
"That's the highest rate we've seen in five years," she says. Nonmedical exemptions for the same population have dropped from over 4 percent to 3 percent. That includes religious exemptions as well as philosophical exemptions, which were allowed under Vermont law until a few years ago.
Andrew Wakefield is best known for publishing a now-discredited study linking the measles vaccine to autism. Rauch has a thick file folder of studies that he says back up Wakefield’s claims. But Arnot says there is no connection.
“The most heavily researched topic in all of medicine is the connection between vaccines and autism and there is absolutely, categorically nothing there. Period," he says.
The physicians at Stowe Family Practice say they’re also concerned about misinformation, regarding both vaccinations and alternative therapies for children on the autism spectrum. Dr. Melissa Volansky advises parents that medical studies can be hard to decipher, and not all are reliable.
"I think it’s important to scrutinize where that information comes from, how many people were involved, was the study carefully controlled, was it peer reviewed," she says. "Because bad information is going to hurt our children."
Dr. Katherine Marvin adds that, whether or not parents choose to follow recommendations from the medical establishment, they are trying to do right by their kids.
"Every parent is coming at this from the same place," she says. "They all love their children. They're all trying to do what's best for their children."
Volansky, Marvin and their colleagues Dr. Clea James and Dr. Robert Quinn agree that vaccinations can become victim to their own success, as Christine Finley explains.
"Young parents today haven't seen a lot of the diseases that vaccines protect against," she says. "They haven't been through the summers when you couldn't go in the water due to polio. They haven't had a friend who's deaf in one ear from measles. They haven't seen somebody die of Hib meningitis. And so the risk of an adverse effect or a side effect seems much more real than a disease that you've never seen."
But Rausch says the protection that vaccines provide comes at a price.
"With the dramatic increase in vaccination, sure the incidents of measles, of chicken pox, of mumps has gone down. But what has gone up?" He answers: "Tremendous rise in chronic health problems."
Rauch says the seminar is simply intended to give parents information, so they can make better-informed decisions. But Arnot disputes that reasoning.
"It’s not putting any information into a parent’s hands because it’s fake science," he says. "It’s pure fake information."
But Rauch sees it differently.
"I’m not saying I’m right and I’m not saying they’re wrong," says Rauch. "I’m saying let’s talk about it, because in a democracy there’s supposed to be free speech."
Seminar opponents have raised safety concerns with the school board and local law enforcement to try and get the conference moved out of the public high school auditorium. School administrators say they don’t endorse the event, but that Rauch has as much right as anybody to book the space.