Billboards questioning the safety of vaccines have popped up over the past couple of months from Berkeley and San Francisco to North Fair Oaks, a largely Latino community in southern San Mateo County. More went up in January in the San Jose area to coincide with Super Bowl 50, which has drawn tens of thousands of visitors to the South Bay.
The billboards, paid for by a nonprofit called the Council for Vaccine Safety, proclaim that vaccines pose serious health risks, a stance almost unanimously rejected by doctors and scientists. One South Bay sign declares, “There’s no such thing as a safe vaccine.” Another reads, “You may be just one shot away from chronic illness.”
One billboard was strategically placed across the street from Hoover Elementary School in North Fair Oaks, drawing the ire of Leah Russin, founder of Vaccinate California. Her parents group advocated heavily for last year’s Senate Bill 277, which eliminated personal belief or religious exemptions to mandatory vaccines for school-age children.
“It’s incredibly irresponsible to intentionally put misinformation about vaccine safety next to schools,” said Russin, of Palo Alto, “especially in a community where residents may face additional hurdles to preventive health care such as language barriers and income inequality.”
Some of the signs happen to be within a few miles of Santa Clara University, where anxious students lined up for vaccinations last week after three of their peers were diagnosed with bacterial meningitis infections.
The billboards are the brainchild of Brandy Vaughan, founder of the Council for Vaccine Safety. She is unfazed by the meningitis scare and maintains that no shot is worth the risk of consuming small amounts of aluminum and other chemicals used to manufacture and preserve vaccines. That opinion conflicts with the consensus in government and the U.S. medical community that vaccines are safe and effective.
Vaughan was an outspoken opponent of SB 277. The legislation, signed in June by Gov. Jerry Brown, came in response to a December 2014 measles outbreak that began at Disneyland. The outbreak occurred at a time when a growing number of Californians were opting not to vaccinate their children.
Though an effort to repeal the law fell apart, anti-vaccine advocates are not giving up, and vaccinations continue to be a highly charged and divisive issue across the nation.
Vaughan has raised $10,000 online for a dozen billboards in the Bay Area.
“We’re no longer the land of the free if we give up the choice of what we put in our body,” said Vaughan, who lives in Santa Barbara but is moving back to her native Bay Area. “My goal is to educate the public and encourage people to do their own research and connect the dots.”
Proponents of vaccines claim Vaughan is doing the opposite of educating people. Amy Pisani, executive director of Every Child by Two, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., called the claims on Vaughan’s billboards “dangerous, misinformative and completely baseless.”
Dr. Scott Morrow and Dr. Sara Cody, chief officers of the San Mateo County and Santa Clara County health departments, respectively, did not make themselves available for comment. Instead they pointed to department policies that promote the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, chief of the pediatric infectious diseases division at the Stanford University School of Medicine, said vaccines prevent about 33,000 deaths a year from communicable diseases.
“Vaccines have been cited as one of the most important public health discoveries and achievements in the United States and around the world,” Maldonado said. “The benefit to children and families and to society as a whole are very substantial.”
But Vaughan is undeterred. She is currently raising more money for billboards in Southern California and hopes to eventually branch out to other states.
The seeds of Vaughan’s crusade were sown in the early 2000s, when she worked as a sales representative for Merck & Co., selling Vioxx for the pharmaceutical giant. Merck recalled the arthritis drug in 2004 in response to research that ultimately linked Vioxx to as many as 38,000 fatal heart attacks.
That experience marked Vaughan, 39, with a deep distrust of the pharmaceutical industry. She calls for tighter government regulation of vaccine-makers and suspects that America’s growing vaccination regime is responsible for various health conditions, including peanut allergies. Those claims are not supported by scientific research.
Maldonado said studies have shown that the minuscule amounts of toxic substances in vaccines are not harmful. There is often more aluminum in drinking water, she said, than in vaccines.
Vaughan has a 4-year-old son whom she plans to home-school rather than have vaccinated against measles, mumps and other infectious diseases, a requirement for entering kindergarten. She said she has received online death threats.
Vaccination should be a personal choice, Vaughan argues.
Health experts say the problem with that position is that immunization is a collective effort. Large-scale immunization prevents outbreaks that would threaten vulnerable members of the population, such as cancer patients whose immune systems are weakened and infants who are too young to be vaccinated, Maldonado said.