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In a Bid to Exhaust Me Personally, Marianne Williamson Shares Anti-Vaccine Misinformation on Facebook

In an especially bald pander to the anti-vaccine community, Williamson claimed vaccines require further safety studies and raised concerns about something called "neurons-toxins."

by Anna Merlan
Dec 6 2019, 8:03pm

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Marianne Williamson, who is, yes, still running for president, objects to the term "anti-vaccine." She doesn't believe she herself is anti-vaccine despite having a years-long record of raising "questions" about vaccine safety, and finds the term objectionable overall. So it's unclear what, exactly, she'd like us to call the comments she posted on Facebook Thursday night, which closely align with the anti-vaccine movement. She also invented a new word, "neurons-toxins," which she seemed to indicate may reside in vaccines.

In the late-night Facebook post— spotted by NBC's Brandy Zadrozny, and which was not cross-posted to any other platform, for some reason—Williamson vowed that, as president, she'd order the CDC to establish "an independent commission to review/reform vaccine safety." She did not indicate whether she's aware of the National Vaccine Advisory Committee. It has existed as part of Health and Human Services since 1987— independent of the CDC, in other words—and its board is made up of doctors and scientists from a variety of well-respected, independent institutions. Its mandate is to make recommendations to the National Vaccine Program about how to "enhance the safety and efficacy of vaccines."

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Screenshot: Marianne Williamson/Facebook

It seems curious that Williamson is unaware of this body, since she does seem aware of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act. (She incorrectly referred to as the "National Vaccine Injury Protection Act.") The act was passed and signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986, and created a federal no-fault system for families to bring claims when they believe their children are injured by a vaccine.

Williamson correctly notes that the fund created that year, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, has paid out some $4 billion to date in compensation. But she does a very partial—some might say deliberately misinformed—job of explaining why, considering that she is someone who has insisted she is "pro-science." Lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers began to skyrocket in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly focused on the makers of the combined diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) immunization. Families were awarded millions of dollars even in cases where it was difficult to prove the vaccine had actually caused in the injury; as History of Vaccines, an educational resource created by a medical society in Philadelphia, put it, "Juries decided these matters on a case by case basis, at times with little medical or scientific support for claims of vaccine injury causation."

By 1984, pharmaceutical companies were getting out of the vaccine business to limit their civil liability, a disastrous outcome for public health. The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, then, was conceived of as a way for parents to make vaccine injury claims in front of a specialized court, and to be awarded compensation from the federal government, without endangering the overall vaccine supply.

To pretend that the existence of the NVICP proves vaccines are unsafe is either deliberately misleading or dangerously misinformed; in this case, Williamson's objective seems clearly to be to simply pander a bit to the anti-vaccine part of her base. She wrote, "Calling people who express any concern or questions about bundling, number of vaccines, neurons-toxins and so forth 'anti-vaxx' is both incorrect and unfair."

There is no such thing as a "neurons-toxin." Williamson probably meant a neurotoxin, and vaccines don't contain those either. Raising concerns about vaccines being "bundled" or children receiving too many at once is a common anti-vaccine talking point that has been debunked many times over, should Marianne choose to pilot from Facebook over to Google.

Williamson, you will recall, claimed at a June rally that mandatory vaccines are "draconian" and "Orwellian," then apologized the following day for using those terms while doubling down on her claim that "Big Pharma," in her words, "rush[es] some drugs to market," a commonly expressed anxiety in the "vaccine skeptical" community.

Williamson's comments on Facebook Thursday night sparked an outpouring of celebration from the anti-vaccine community, with well-known anti-vax campaigner Larry Cook appearing in her mentions to praise her and the Facebook group VaXism urging people to donate to her campaign.

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Screenshot via Marianne Williamson/Facebook

Williamson's campaign didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE on whether she's aware of the existence of the National Vaccine Advisory Committee, what she would do to change it if she became president, what specific vaccines she believes require further study, or precisely what a "neuron-toxin" is.

Update, 6:50 p.m. EST:

Williamson's press office has responded to a list of questions from VICE; both the questions and the answers are below.

· She's previously objected to the term anti-vax; can you tell me what she'd prefer?

Marianne Williamson supports safe pharmaceuticals. Vaccines are important and they save lives; every medical intervention comes with both benefits and risks. Taking a stand for independent scientific verification of vaccine safety is not “anti-vaxx.”

Which specific vaccines does she believe require further study?

Currently vaccines do NOT have the same levels of safety testing that other drugs do before being released: vaccines are regulated by the FDA under the Public Health Services Act rather than the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act which has higher testing standards. All vaccines should be tested for both safety and effectiveness independently from the companies that profit from their sale. Tests should include when the vaccine is used alone, when used in combination with other vaccines, and when administered to people of different ages and weights.

I'm also curious if Ms. Williamson is aware there is a National Vaccine Advisory Committee, and if so, what she'd change about it.

Yes, she is aware of the National Vaccine Advisory Committee. However, the NVAC needs more public input. It also needs a more open process. Every one of the NVAC’s vaccine information safety sheets need to be reviewed for clarity and updated with current information, including possible side effects. $4 billion in damages has been paid to people harmed by vaccines: the reason for harm should be made public so people can understand risks and so scientists can improve vaccine safety.

Also, she used the word "neuron-toxin," which isn't a real thing. Does she mean a neurotoxin?

Yes, that was a typo. She meant neurotoxin.

A few things are worth noting here: the implications that there is no "independent scientific verification of vaccine safety," that vaccines are only studied by their manufacturers, or that vaccines are less tested or regulated than other drugs are all false. The American Academy of Pediatrics helpfully provides a partial list of the many, many independent studies conducted on vaccines.

Even if you chose not to believe any U.S.-based health body, vaccines are rigorously tested and monitored across the globe, including by the European Medicines Agency. Nonetheless, distrust in vaccines is a global problem.

The suggestion that vaccines should be tested alone, in combination other vaccines and on people of "different ages and weights" is a curious one. Some of that research has been done, but not all of it is ethically possible: among other things, Health and Human Services has fairly rigorous rules that limit the amount of randomized, double-blind medical research that can be done on children, which is a good thing.

If the concern is that the current immunization schedule hasn't been adequately studied, well, it has. A massive study of nearly a half a million children published in the Journal of American Medicine released just last year showed that the childhood immunization schedule in the United States does not increase infections not targeted by those vaccines. Along with that, we have decades of research showing that vaccines safely and effectively target the diseases they're designed to prevent. Together, that's a pretty good indicator of how extremely safe vaccines continue to be.

The claim that NVAC "keeps secret the reason the government has paid out $4 billion in damages to people injured by vaccines" is also false. The Health Resources and Services Administration issues regular, detailed reports showing how many doses of each vaccine are issued nationwide, how many claims are filed alleging an injury from which specific vaccines, and how many of those claims end in a settlement; the HRSA also provides data showing how many people are compensated each year and how much they are awarded. If you want to read the court petitions filed by people who believe they were injured by vaccines, well, you can do that too.

Williamson's press team says NVAC's vaccine information safety sheets need to be "reviewed for clarity and updated with current inforation, incuding possible side effects." NVAC doesn't produce information safety sheets for individual vaccines, but the CDC does. They already list possible side effects.

Williamson's campaign didn't respond to another request for comment on whether she believes vaccines contain neurotoxins, which they do not.

Update, Saturday, 10:20 a.m. EST:

Readers have helpfully pointed out there is yet more bullshit in the Williamson campaign's response, this time relating to the FDA's management of the vaccine program. Vaccines are also regulated by the FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, which does so under the authority of both the Public Health Service Act of 1944 (not "Health Services Act," as the Williamson campaign put it) and the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, not just the former. And the Public Health Service Act isn't somehow linked to lower testing standards. It calls on the director of the PHSA to:

[C]oordinate and provide direction to the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Office of Biologics Research and Review of the Food and Drug Administration, the National Center for Health Statistics, the National Center for Health Services Research and Health Care Technology Assessment, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in monitoring the need for and the effectiveness and adverse effects of vaccines and immunization activities.

In other words, the claim that the FDA is mostly responsible for regulating vaccines under some lax law is, again, false. More information on the vaccine appproval process is here.

Finally, the Williamson campaign referred to vaccines as "pharmaceuticals," which isn't really correct. You can learn more about the difference between a drug and a vaccine.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Williamson called mandatory vaccines "draconian" and "Orwellian" during a debate; she said it at a campaign rally.

Know something we should know? Email anna.merlan@vice.com

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