Anti-vaccine campaigners have found a growing political voice for their debunked ideas in Texas, the adopted home of discredited British researcher Andrew Wakefield, and now hope to unseat a moderate Republican in the heart of Houston.
Texas has seen rates of children opting out of vaccines for philosophical reasons skyrocket after Wakefield – the man behind the UK’s MMR vaccine controversy in the early 2000s – moved to the state’s capital, Austin, more than a decade ago.
Since the early 2000s, when he arrived, the rate of Texas children exempted from at least one vaccine has shot up by 1,900% according to one analysis, while Houston has become a battleground for anti-vaccine activists of growing clout.
Now, Wakefield sees the upcoming Republican primary in Houston on 6 March as an “an extremely important time” to advance his anti-vaccine agenda.
Anti-vaccine campaigners in the state’s biggest city are door-knocking, fundraising and Facebook-ing in hopes they can replace a moderate Republican with a conservative challenger, to represent a district that houses 2.1-miles of hospitals and research institutions.
Conservative Susanna Dokupil has received enthusiastic support from Texans for Vaccine Choice as she challenges fellow Republican Sarah Davis. Texans for Vaccine Choice declined to comment for this story. Dokupil did not respond to a request for comment.
Davis angered often women-led anti-vaccine groups, which prefer to be called “vaccine choice” or “medical freedom” campaigners, when she urged lawmakers to mandate human papillomavirus vaccines for foster children.
“There are clearly a number of candidates running with this platform front and center – vaccine choice, medical freedom,” Wakefield told the Guardian. “The members of Texans for Vaccine Choice have been very successful in their lobbying.”
“We’re seeing moderate candidates being cherry-picked out by candidates running on anti-vaccine platforms,” said Dr Peter Hotez, a tropical disease vaccine researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Hotez, whose daughter has autism, warns that Texas could be vulnerable to a measles outbreak because so many parents have foregone shots. “They’ve clearly been very aggressive now, and have been emboldened.”
The trend appears to have spread across Texas. In recent months, high-profile politicians have questioned vaccine safety, such as the Bexar county district attorney, and state representatives and senators.
Wakefield prompted large drops in vaccination rates in the UK and Ireland when he published a paper in the Lancet in 1998 – since retracted by the medical journal – claiming there was a link between the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), and autism and bowel disease.
His theories were subsequently debunked and his medical license was revoked. The number of children who have serious adverse reactions to vaccines is diminishingly small, at about one in one million – a lower chance than that of dying in a plane crash within a year.
By contrast, measles is one of the most contagious diseases on the planet, and in the decade before a vaccine was introduced infected roughly four million Americans per year; hospitalized 48,000; and left 4,000 with serious brain swelling.
“If you really look in the book at the number of adverse events from vaccines, they are incredibly few,” said Hotez. While all medications carry risks, there is near universal agreement that vaccines are among the safest.
Nevertheless, Wakefield has made a living promoting his discredited theories in the US since he moved to Texas, something he partly credits to the rise of social media. Facebook groups, made up predominantly of women, have joined conspiratorial anti-vaccination groups which researchers believe could keep the movement “durable on a global scale”.
“Social media has evolved, as a general comment, has evolved beautifully,” Wakefield said. Social media has provided an alternative “to the failings of mainstream media”.
“In this country, it’s become so polarized now… No one knows quite what to believe,” Wakefield said. “So, people are turning increasingly to social media.”
Starting in 2010 or 2011, Wakefield started visiting a Somali community in Minnesota, meetings he once described as a “support group” for families with autistic children. In 2017, after vaccine fears were spread by Wakefield and local groups, the community suffered the worst measles outbreak in decades.
“Some years ago”, he told the Guardian, Wakefield met with activists from Texans for Vaccine Safety, and took part in a rally on the steps of the state capital. He also attempted to sue British journalists in Texas courts, in a case that was dismissed in 2015.
But Wakefield’s most substantial contribution to Texas appears to be the network of autism-related charities and businesses he has been affiliated with, and in some instances drew six-figure salaries from, from the early 2000s onwards.
Wakefield headed the Thoughtful House Center for Children in Austin from 2005 to 2010, resigning as executive director after facing the loss of his medical license in the UK. The charity later changed its name to the Johnson Center for Child Health and Development.
He then founded Strategic Autism Initiative the same year, and governed the organization with Polly Tommey, a British mother with an autistic son, who worked with Wakefield extensively. Wakefield also founded the Autism Media Channel in Austin, where videos continue to assert there is a link between autism and the MMR vaccine.
Austin-based charities have also been founded by Wakefield’s allies, such as Autism Trust USA, founded in 2013 by Tommey, according to the Austin American Statesman.
In 2016, Wakefield released the film Vaxxed, which he directed and Tommey produced. The film claims there is a cover-up at the CDC. The same year, Wakefield also met with then-candidate Donald Trump, and he attended the president’s inaugural ball in 2017, invited by a Trump supporter he refuses to name.
Trump called for a “vaccine safety commission” days after his inauguration. When that did not materialize, anti-vaccine activists asserted it was stopped because of government corruption.
Texas parents are still more likely to vaccinate their children than the US as a whole. In Texas, 97.3% of children get two doses of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, versus 94% across the US.
But since Wakefield moved to the state, the number of children whose parents have exempted them from at least one vaccine has shot up, and those rates vary dramatically from city to city.
Austin, Houston and Dallas have become hotbeds for vaccine “conscientious” objections, where a parent can avoid getting shots for their children based on personal belief.
In some schools in these areas, one-third of children lack at least one vaccine. At one private school in Austin, more than 40% of kids lack a shot.
“The anti-vax movement in Texas is really being driven by ultra-conservatives which really center around Dallas,” said Jinny Suh, a mother of two boys in Austin. Suh is also the founder of Immunize Texas, which advocates for tighter vaccine requirements.
“I’m part of a lot of the moms networks and groups, and it is still incredibly difficult to just come out and say vaccines are safe,” said Suh. “The biggest challenge we face is, if you go onto Facebook or Google and you do a search for vaccines – and we can imagine a lot of new moms do this… the anti-vax stuff out there outnumbers the pro-vax stuff by quite a bit.
“It doesn’t matter how you started out thinking about the topic, when a person is inundated with that much misinformation a person can’t help but start to think it’s true.”