Dene Shulze-Alva and her daughter Sage, 5, protest against vaccine laws in Houston
It’s Sage’s fifth birthday. She’s wearing a pin that tells the world, and she’s carrying a sign, too.
“Today is my 5th B-day,” it reads. “Denied school because I don’t have 39 vaccines.”
Sage’s mom, Dene Shulze-Alva, has brought her to Houston from Los Angeles to protest against vaccine laws. She’s refused to vaccinate her children and is upset that means they soon will not be able to enroll in any school in California.
She’s among four dozen or so people gathered outside on a hot late-summer morning, joining a hard core of activists who believe that all vaccines are dangerous and have become increasingly emboldened about denouncing the medical establishment.
So Sage is spending her birthday on a narrow verge of grass in front of a Houston hotel, waving signs on a highway overpass as traffic passes by.
“Look at her. She’s 5. She’s maybe 28 pounds. I can’t inject her with the dose they are requiring,” says Shulze-Alva, a chiropractor.
None of her children are fully vaccinated, says Shulze-Alve, who smiles pleasantly and patiently lays out her arguments. And now California has eliminated personal belief and religious exemptions for vaccination, meaning children may not enroll in school if they are unvaccinated unless they have a valid medical reason.
The state tightened restrictions after a measles outbreak in 2014-15 sickened 131 people in the state and 147 nationally. State health officials said the virus was imported by a traveler, but took hold and spread among pockets of people who had unvaccinated or undervaccinated children.
“We are forced into home schooling. Sage cannot enroll in any school,” says Shulze-Alva.
Vaccine skeptics aren't new.
“Being anti-vaccine goes back to the time of Jenner,” says Dr. James Cherry, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Edward Jenner started immunizing people against smallpox in 1796. Once a killer of millions, smallpox was eradicated 200 years later after a global vaccination push.
But the skeptics have taken on a brasher, bolder tone in recent months. They once argued that they were only for safer vaccines, but an increasing number now say most or all vaccines are dangerous, and some accuse the federal government, physicians and the “mainstream” media of colluding with drug companies to deliberately poison children using vaccines.
“It is really reaching a new level,” says Dr. Susan Wootton, associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
“The anti-vaccine movement is a different beast in 2017 because of the rapidity with which these false stories get propagated (with) the power of the anecdote.”
There are plenty of anecdotes to go around on this hot, humid Texas morning.
Paula Bryant of Oregon said her 17-year old daughter is profoundly disabled with autism and she blames vaccines given to the child at 18 months.
“I can’t say what caused it. I can only say that three days later she could barely function,” she said.
Bryant took her daughter to a practitioner who told her the girl’s blood was full of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, antimony and mercury. “I wondered how she got it,” she added. “The government and the people who made these vaccines know there is a dark side.”
Many of the demonstrators say they regularly fly from around the country, taking time away from work or family, to hold up signs and to step into a large bus to record video testimonials later posted on social media.
They were summoned to this particular demonstration on social media. “This is a CALL TO ACTION! Unite with us around the country and around the world! War has been waged on humanity!” declares one announcement on the We Are Vaxxed Facebook page.
“This is a runaway train,” says Tammy Johns, a life coach with three daughters who lives in the Bay Area of San Francisco. She blames her daughter’s ear infections, bronchitis, asthma and diarrhea on vaccines and rejects arguments that failure to vaccinate children puts other kids at risk.
“My first doctor bullied me,” says Johns. “He kept leading me to the (American Academy of Pediatrics) website. He said he wouldn’t see me when we refused vaccines. We just get shut down.”
Some decline to give their full names or home towns, saying they fear disapproval from friends, family or employers.
“I personally had a reaction to a tetanus shot,” says Ashley, a young woman from Lake Charles, Louisiana. "I got rashes. I had ulcers," she says. "I had three miscarriages."
The atmosphere is friendly, relaxed and mostly polite, and they’re eager to share what they believe to be unique insights gained by spending hours on the internet.
“They know more about vaccine science than many pediatricians do,” says Dr. Jim Meehan, a former Oklahoma ophthalmologist who says he now practices “wellness” and who wanders among the demonstrators.
“You can’t rely on physicians who haven’t done their own research,” adds Meehan, who freely admits that as an eye specialist he had little formal training in vaccine science, immunology, or infectious disease.