The flashy 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 a Wisconsin Dells resort for a sold-out convention that was, in fact, a sea of misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines and the pandemic.
The featured speaker was the anti-vaccine activist who appeared in the 2020 movie Plandemic, which pushed false Covid-19 stories into the mainstream. One session after another discussed bogus claims about the “dangers” of mask-wearing and vaccines.
The convention was organized by members of a profession in which a vocal minority seek disproportionate influence on Covid: chiropractors.
At a time when the US surgeon general says misinformation has become an urgent threat to public health, an investigation by the Associated Press found group of chiropractors capitalizing on the pandemic by sowing fear and mistrust of vaccines.
They have touted their supplements as alternatives to vaccines, written doctor’s notes to allow patients to get out of mask and immunization mandates, donated large sums of money to anti-vaccine organizations and sold anti-vaccine ads on Facebook and Instagram, the AP discovered.
One chiropractor gave thousands to a Super Pac that hosted an anti-vaccine, pro-Donald Trump rally near the US Capitol on 6 January.
They have also been the leading force behind anti-vaccine events like the one in Wisconsin, where hundreds of chiropractors shelled out $299 or more to attend.
Public health advocates are alarmed.
“People trust them. They trust their authority, but they also feel like they’re a nice alternative to traditional medicine,” said Erica DeWald of Vaccinate Your Family, who tracks figures in the anti-vaccine movement.
She ventured that: “Mainstream medicine will refer people out to a chiropractor not knowing that they could be exposed to misinformation. You go because your back hurts, and then suddenly you don’t want to vaccinate your kids.”
They represent a small but vocal minority of the nation’s 70,000 chiropractors, many of whom advocate in favor of vaccines. In some places, chiropractors have helped organize vaccine clinics or been authorized to give Covid-19 shots.
The pandemic gave a new platform to a faction of chiropractors who had been stirring up anti-vaccine misinformation long before Covid-19 arrived.
Chiropractic was founded in 1895 by DD Palmer, a “magnetic healer” who argued that most disease was a result of misaligned vertebrae.
Its early leaders rejected the use of surgery and drugs, as well as the idea that germs cause disease.
This led many to reject vaccines.
A 2015 Gallup survey found an estimated 33.5 million adults had seen a chiropractor in the previous 12 months.
Since 2019, the AP found, chiropractors and chiropractor-backed groups have worked to influence vaccine-related legislation and policy in at least 24 states.
For example, an organization started by a chiropractor and a co-owner of a chiropractic business takes credit for torpedoing a New Jersey bill in early 2020 that would have ended the state’s religious exemption for vaccines.
Then the pandemic hit, creating new avenues for profit.
The first complaint the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed under the Covid-19 Consumer Protection Act was in April against a Missouri chiropractor.
It alleges 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 in court.
Nebraska chiropractor Ben Tapper landed on the “Disinformation Dozen”, a list compiled by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which says he is among the small group of people responsible for nearly two-thirds of anti-vaccine content online.
In his view, the public is being told that they need a vaccine to be healthy, which he doesn’t believe is true. He said vaccines have no place in what he calls the “wellness and prevention paradigm”.
It’s unclear how widespread anti-vaccine sentiment is in the ranks of chiropractors, but there are some clues.
Stephen Perle, a professor at the University of Bridgeport School of Chiropractic, recently surveyed thousands of US chiropractors. He said his and other surveys show that less than 20% of chiropractors have “unorthodox” views, such as opposition to vaccines. Perle called that group an “exceedingly vocal, engaged minority”.
AP could find no national numbers of vaccination rates among chiropractors, but Oregon tracks vaccine uptake among all licensed health providers.
Just 58% of licensed chiropractors and 55% of chiropractic assistants in Oregon were vaccinated as of 5 September compared with 96% of dentists, 92% of MDs, 83% of registered nurses, 68% of naturopathic physicians, and 75% of the general public.
One chiropractor in North Carolina says people who get flu shots are “poisoning themselves”.
A patient testimonial on the website of a chiropractor in Georgia proclaims, “Dr Lou has taught me how toxic shots and vaccinations are.”
A Michigan chiropractor, Kyle McKamey, tells patients on a pediatric intake form “If you would like information regarding the dangers of vaccines and how to refuse them, let us know!” The line is punctuated by a smiley face emoji.
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.
Another 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.
The New Jersey senate’s Democratic president, Steve Sweeney, told AP that he was concerned some chiropractors were running afoul of the state’s truth-in-advertising law because they were spreading anti-vaccine misinformation.
“Chiropractors are violating the law and giving medical advice, and the ones that are found to violate the law should have their licenses stripped from them,” he said. “They’re not medical doctors, and they’re giving advice as if they’re experts – and they’re not.”