PROVIDENCE, R.I.— The postcard covered with images of syringes beckoned people to attend Vax-Con ‘21 to learn “the uncensored truth” about COVID-19 vaccines.
Participants traveled from around the country to Chula Vista Resort in Wisconsin Dells for a sold-out convention that was, in fact, a sea of misinformation. The featured speaker was the anti-vaccine 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 anti-vaccine organizations and sold anti-vaccine ads on Facebook and Instagram. They have been the leading force behind anti-vaccine 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 anti-vaccine 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 anti-vaccine 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 vaccine-related 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 labeled a member of the “Disinformation Dozen.”
DeMoss and Cal Jam did not respond to emails. Laura Bono of Children’s Health Defense said the group doesn’t make donor information public.
Dells event profitable
In Wisconsin, Vax-Con was not just a way to spread anti-vaccine 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 nonmember 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 from Minnesota, South Dakota, Illinois, Iowa and Kansas 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 AP 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.
James Damrow, a third-generation chiropractor in Janesville, Wisconsin, is a member of the Wisconsin Chiropractic Examining Board. When Vax-Con sought approval to have its session count as continuing education credit, Damrow allowed it. He said he didn’t like the name and would have preferred it be called something “a little less controversial” than Vax-Con.
“When I looked into the materials, it was fairly well-referenced, peer-reviewed science, so I felt like it was good information that was something that would be OK for the doctor to know,” Damrow said.
He said chiropractors were being unfairly cast as anti-science and “that’s not accurate.”
The aftershocks of Vax-Con continue in Wisconsin. John Murray, executive director of the Wisconsin Chiropractic Association, which had nothing to do with Vax-Con, said he couldn’t understand why the state examining board approved continuing education credits.
“The way the program was marketed and the lineup of pretty much publicly avowed anti-vaxxers, any pretense of an objective treatment of the topic I think is laughable,” Murray said.
For Murray, 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.
Bauer reported from Madison, Wisconsin. Catalini reported from Trenton, New Jersey. Associated Press writers Casey Smith and Lauran Neergaard contributed to this report.