Two prominent anti-vaccine activists have been appointed to a Minnesota council on autism, a move that has sparked controversy in the wake of measles outbreaks in Washington and New York.
The council was formed last year by Republican state Senator Jim Abeler and was intended to served as an advisory board for the Minnesota State Legislature on autism. But as The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported last Thursday, the addition of vaccine denialists is calling the council’s legitimacy into question.
Abeler has reportedly said he wants the council to represent diverse viewpoints, but added that it will not address the efficacy of vaccines. That still hasn’t satisfied critics of the move, who say the appointments give credulity to people who advocate for pseudoscience.
“Even if it’s not something that’s discussed or that a policy is going to come out of, giving them this large contingency on this council is dangerous. It’s giving credence to a theory that’s false,” said council member Noah McCourt, who also serves on the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities.
According to the Star Tribune, Abeler appointed the first three members of the council, one of whom was anti-vaccine activist Wayne Rhode. Rhode was then charged with picking other members, which included Patti Carroll. Both Rhode and Carroll are part of the executive leadership for an organization called Health Choice, which aims to make vaccination optional.
Rhode, who is also the co-founder of the Vaccine Safety Council of Minnesota (an organization that sows fear about the safety of vaccines), says that people who voice skepticism about vaccines are “quickly marginalized.” Nevertheless, Rhode reaffirmed Abeler’s contention that the council will not make vaccine safety an issue.
Speaking to the Star Tribune, Abeler was sympathetic to vaccine skeptics, saying that he personally believes doctors should explain to patients “the pluses and minuses” of vaccines and talk about their alleged dangers.
As The Washington Post reported in 2017, anti-vaccine groups gained entry to a Minnesota Somali community after parents researching autism came across their websites. Soon after, healthcare providers started seeing vaccination rates drop, which led to a measles outbreak that infected 41 people.
The formation of Abeler’s council comes in the wake of the state of Washington declaring a state of emergency after a measles outbreak that has so far infected 35 people. The areas affected by the outbreak were known to be anti-vaccination “hot spots.” This fall, New York faced its most severe measles outbreak in decades, which was centered in the state’s ultra-orthodox Jewish communities.
Globally, measles is a leading cause of death for children, killing an average of 246 children under age 5 every day. The disease can also lead to severe complications such as swelling of the brain or blindness.