Anti-vaccine movement finding allies among Minnesota GOP lawmakers

Vials of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine are displayed on a counter at a Walgreens Pharmacy on January 26, 2015 | Photo by Illustration Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The small but vocal group of parents propagating fringe views about the safety and effectiveness of childhood immunizations have found unlikely allies — Minnesota lawmakers. 

Through personal and official Republican Senate media channels on Facebook, as well as appearances at an anti-vaccination rally last year at the Capitol, more than a dozen state legislators in the House and Senate have lent the support of their elected offices to groups that medical professionals say are sowing disinformation about vaccinations. Other Minnesota lawmakers made appearances at a February 2019 event featuring vocal anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the Minneapolis Club. 

The Minnesota lawmakers include state Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, chair of the Senate Human Services Reform Finance and Policy committee, who formed the Minnesota Autism Council, an advisory panel. His decision to appoint two vaccine skeptics touched off criticism, given the 2017 measles outbreak in Minnesota, which was attributed to the work of anti-vaxxers spreading disinformation among the Somali community

Among other notable examples is state Sen. Scott Jenson, a Chaska Republican and physician, who said on Facebook that vaccines could have adverse side effects, though he did not specify what types. “Results are not guaranteed and research based predictions often fall short,” he said. “In America, parents have always been decision makers for their children. I hope that doesn’t change.”

Dr. Robert M. Jacobson, a Mayo Clinic pediatrician who focuses on vaccine delivery, effectiveness and adverse consequences, said vaccines undergo a number of quality and safety assurances that aren’t required of vitamins, supplements, and even prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Immunizations also face stringent testing before receiving regulatory approval — as well as continuous monitoring of adverse side effects. 

“That is why I make the argument that vaccines are safer than anything else I can do for my patients,” he said. 

That hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from sharing widely-debunked assertions about the side effects of vaccines. 

State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, shared an article on her own Facebook page headlined: “Kenyan Doctors say UNICEF is Making Women Barren Through Polio Vaccine.” Such doubts about the polio vaccine have helped fuel the resurgence of polio in countries like Pakistan

In Minnesota, public health officials are concerned about the sharply rising number of kindergartners who are without measles and chickenpox vaccines, reducing “herd immunity” levels at schools, the Star Tribune reported last year. Minnesota experienced a 2017 measles outbreak that sickened dozens and hospitalized 21 people. The North Star State has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country among its youngest, with about two-thirds of children ages 19-35 months immunized. Massachusetts is above 80%. 

The North Star State has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country among its youngest, with about two-thirds of children ages 19-35 months immunized. Massachusetts is above 80%. 

Minnesota Reformer reached out to 14 lawmakers, including Abeler, Jensen and Kiffmeyer, seeking comment on their positions. None returned messages left for comment. They are:

State Sens. Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo Township; Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids; Dan Hall, R-Burnsville; Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks; Andrew Matthews, R-Princeton; Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake; Greg Boe, R-Chaska; and, state Reps.Mary Franson, R-Alexandria; Tony Jurgens, R-Cottage Grove; Eric Lucero, R-Dayton; Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal; and, Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake.

“We live in an era where some politicians embrace untrue information and use that as the basis of their decision-making,” said Dr. Mark Schleiss, of the division of pediatric infectious diseases and immunology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “They can believe whatever they want and support any legislation they want, but ultimately it’s up to the voter if that’s who they want representing them in a legislative body.”

Abeler was just one of eight state senators who expressed skepticism about vaccines in opposing Senate File 1520, a bill drafted by DFL state Sen. Chris Eaton, a Brooklyn Park nurse. The bill would have mandated vaccines for all school-aged children. 

Abeler later said in a Reformer interview after this article first published that parents should be allowed to have “informed consent,” and he said parents who are skeptical of vaccines are being impugned.

“Most of the people who have concerns about vaccines never thought twice about it until their own child got damaged or their friend was injured by a vaccine,” Abeler said. “It turns out they’re not nearly as safe as they’re told, and they’re not even as effective as they’re told.”

Abeler’s claims are wrong, according to vaccine experts and scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and effective. Anti-vaccination groups continue spreading similarly debunked information that have caused immunization rates to fall in some pockets of the state. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 10 million deaths were prevented between 2010 and 2015 worldwide thanks to vaccinations.

Although Eaton’s bill did not receive a hearing nor win any House co-sponsors, it attracted vocal opposition, including demonstrators who rallied at the Capitol and contacted her office stating their opposition. Eaton said her bill is again unlikely to receive a hearing in the GOP-controlled Senate.

The rally, Eaton said, was particularly notable given the lack of movement on her bill. 

She said she also sponsored legislation that would require parents to consult with doctors before deciding whether or not to immunize their children. 

“I’m a nurse, and I believe in science,” she said in an interview. “I believe that vaccines are safe and effective, and I think it’s really bizarre that there’s all these people in the Legislature who are willing to put all these children and seniors at risk by supporting not vaccinating. It’s irresponsible.”

Immunization becoming more partisan

Kolina Koltai, a researcher at the School of Information at the University of Texas, has been studying the social media behavior of those active in the anti-vaccination movement for five years. In the past two, Koltai said she has detected a shift in partisan ID for those opposed to vaccinations, with Republicans increasingly more likely to sponsor legislation undermining immunizations.

“There’s a politicization of science that is happening,” Koltai said, likening it to the debate over climate-change, in which skeptics include many prominent Republicans who continue casting doubt on the scientific consensus. 

In California, where Democrats hold a super majority, Republicans have opposed efforts to crack down on illegitimate medical exemptions sought by parents wanting to skip vaccinations. The number of medical exemptions sought by parents in California rose after 2015, when lawmakers banned exemptions except for medical reasons. The law helped increase the rate of vaccinations but also brought a rise in medical exemptions claims

“It’s only in the past few years that I’ve seen it happen now with vaccines, where it was not the case before, in particular shifting toward the Republican Party,” Koltai said. 

Facebook, Koltai said, has created a community for people questioning vaccination, a place where they can share information and plan their opposition strategies.  

NBC News recently reported on the death from the flu of a 4-year-old boy in Colorado, whose mother sought advice from members of an anti-vaccination Facebook group with 178,000 members. Her children did not receive flu vaccinations, and she sought advice on how to treat the illness without the use of Tamiflu, a common antiviral her doctor prescribed. 

Facebook has also become a way to organize demonstrations at state legislatures, opposing bills that would remove personal beliefs exemptions or similar objections.

The doubts raised by high-profile opponents of vaccinations are not inconsequential. Confidence in vaccine safety is dropping among Americans, according to a Gallup Poll published in January. 

Fewer Americans polled say that it’s “important or very important for parents to vaccinate their children”; 84% of Americans agreed with that statement, representing a 10-point drop from 2001.

But the poll found differences across partisan affiliations. In 2001, the rate of self-identified Republicans who believed vaccinations were important stood at 93 percent. That dropped 14 percentage points to 79% in the recent Gallup poll. Democrats’ view of vaccines also declined, though the drop was smaller — 97% in 2001 compared with 92% in the most recent poll. 

Mayo Clinic’s Jacobsen said doctors and other clinicians should be laboring to convince parents, who he said are often looking to do the right thing for their children, about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. 

“I want my parents to vaccinate their children because they understand that it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “In the end, the parents actually hold up their doctors and nurses as more important authority, than our government leaders.”

*This story has been updated to include comments from state Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.