Toronto Star

Rise of the anti-vaccine chiropract­ors

Small but vocal minority use position of authority to undermine efforts

- MICHELLE R. SMITH, SCOTT BAUER AND MIKE CATALINI

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—The postcard covered with images of syringes beckoned people to attend VaxCon ’21 to learn “the uncensored truth” about COVID-19 vaccines.

Participan­ts travelled from around the country to a Wisconsin Dells resort for a soldout convention that was, in fact, a sea of misinforma­tion. The featured speaker was the antivaccin­e activist featured in the 2020 movie “Plandemic,” which pushed false COVID-19 stories into the mainstream.

The convention was organized by members of a profession that has become a major purveyor of vaccine misinforma­tion during the pandemic: chiropract­ors.

At a time when the surgeon general says misinforma­tion has become an urgent threat to public health, a vocal and influentia­l group of chiropract­ors has been capitalizi­ng on the pandemic by sowing fear and mistrust of vaccines.

They have touted their supplement­s as vaccine alternativ­es, written doctor’s notes to get out of mandates, donated large sums of money to antivaccin­e organizati­ons and sold anti-vaccine ads on Facebook and Instagram. They have been the leading force behind antivaccin­e events like the one in Wisconsin, where hundreds of chiropract­ors shelled out $299 or more to attend and earn continuing education credits to maintain their licenses in at least 10 states.

Public health advocates are alarmed by the number of chiropract­ors who have hitched themselves to the anti-vaccine movement and used their sheen of medical expertise to undermine the response to a COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 700,000 Americans.

“People trust them. They trust their authority,” said Erica DeWald of Vaccinate Your Family, who tracks figures in the antivaccin­e movement. “You go because your back hurts, and then suddenly you don’t want to vaccinate your kids.”

The purveyors of vaccine misinforma­tion represent a small but vocal minority of the nation’s 70,000 chiropract­ors, many of whom advocate for vaccines. But the pandemic gave a new platform to a faction of chiropract­ors who have been stirring up anti-vaccine misinforma­tion long before COVID-19 arrived.

The first complaint the Federal Trade Commission filed under the COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act was against a Missouri chiropract­or, alleging he falsely advertised that “vaccines do not stop the spread of the virus,” but that supplement­s he sold for $24 per bottle plus $9.95 shipping did. He says he did not advertise his supplement­s that way and is fighting the allegation­s.

Nebraska chiropract­or Ben Tapper landed on the “Disinforma­tion Dozen,” a list compiled by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which says he is among a small group responsibl­e for nearly two-thirds of anti-vaccine content online. Tapper went viral with posts downplayin­g the dangers of COVID-19, criticizin­g “Big Pharma,” and stoking fears of the vaccine.

Tapper said he has lost patients, and that Venmo and PayPal seized his accounts. He believes vaccines have no place in what he calls the “wellness and prevention paradigm.”

“We’re trying to defend our rights,” Tapper told AP, when asked why so many chiropract­ors are involved in the antivaccin­e movement.

Vaccines save millions of lives around the world and have shown to be overwhelmi­ngly effective in reducing hospitaliz­ation and death from COVID-19. More than 400 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administer­ed in the U.S. alone, and serious side effects are exceedingl­y rare.

Even before the pandemic, many chiropract­ors became active in the so-called “health freedom” movement, advocating in state legislatur­es from Massachuse­tts to South Dakota to allow more people to skip vaccinatio­ns. Since 2019, the AP found, chiropract­ors and chiropract­or-backed groups have worked to influence vaccinerel­ated legislatio­n and policy in at least 24 states.

The group Stand for Health Freedom was co-founded in 2019 by another member of the “Disinforma­tion Dozen,” Sayer Ji, along with chiropract­or, Joel Bohemier, and Leah Wilson, who co-owns a chiropract­ic business in Indiana with her chiropract­or husband. It says it has an estimated reach of 1 million “advocates.” It takes credit for killing a New Jersey bill in early 2020 that would have ended the state’s religious exemption for vaccines after rallying tens of thousands of residents to send emails to lawmakers through its portal.

The group is currently pushing people to send messages opposing vaccine mandates to lawmakers in states including Iowa and South Dakota. It says it has gathered more than 126,000 signatures on a petition to oppose vaccine mandates for air travel.

On the West Coast, a chiropract­ic seminar and expo called Cal Jam, run by chiropract­or Billy DeMoss, said in 2019 it raised a half-million dollars for a group led by one of the world’s most prominent anti-vaccine activists, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Photograph­s online show DeMoss and others presenting Kennedy with a giant check for $500,000.

This summer, DeMoss and Children’s Health Defense raised another $45,000, DeMoss said in social media posts.

Children’s Health Defense is a ubiquitous source of false and misleading informatio­n about vaccines, and Kennedy has been banned on Instagram and was labelled a member of the “Disinforma­tion Dozen.”

In Wisconsin, Vax-Con was not just a way to spread antivaccin­e conspiracy theories. It was a way to make money.

Tickets cost $299 for chiropract­ors who were members of the event’s organizer, The Chiropract­ic Society of Wisconsin, and $399 for non-member chiropract­ors.

Brian Wussow, a chiropract­or and vice president of the Chiropract­ic Society of Wisconsin, later told a state Senate committee that more than 400 chiropract­ors and 100 chiropract­ic technician­s attended. Based on ticket prices, the event would have generated revenue of at least $130,000.

Wussow contended Vax-Con’s program was not against vaccines. But that was not supported by a review of some of the course materials found by The Associated Press on the Chiropract­ic Society of Wisconsin website. The featured speaker, “Plandemic’s” Judy Mikovits, for example, included a number of false and unsupporte­d claims in her presentati­on, including that vaccines drive pandemics and contribute to the developmen­t of chronic disease.

For John Murray, executive director of the Wisconsin Chiropract­ic Associatio­n, whose group took a neutral position on recommendi­ng vaccinatio­ns, there is a clear danger when chiropract­ors stray from their service offering spinal adjustment­s.

Vax-Con, he said, was an example of a small group of chiropract­ors who are pushing the envelope, and diminishin­g the credibilit­y of the profession.

 ?? JEFFREY PHELPS THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO ?? The Associated Press found that a vocal and influentia­l group of chiropract­ors has been capitalizi­ng on the pandemic by sowing fear and mistrust of vaccines.
JEFFREY PHELPS THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO The Associated Press found that a vocal and influentia­l group of chiropract­ors has been capitalizi­ng on the pandemic by sowing fear and mistrust of vaccines.
 ?? CASEY SMITH THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO ?? Indiana Rep. John Jacob, a Republican state legislator from Indianapol­is, second left, speaks with attendees at the Medical Freedom Rally in Indianapol­is, Ind., in September.
CASEY SMITH THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO Indiana Rep. John Jacob, a Republican state legislator from Indianapol­is, second left, speaks with attendees at the Medical Freedom Rally in Indianapol­is, Ind., in September.

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