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Discredited vaccination opponent Andrew Wakefield crusades against California SB 277

Andrew Wakefield — the former doctor who is a leading voice of the anti-vaccination movement despite having his work discredited — has joined the fight to defeat SB 277, the legislation that would require California schoolchildren to be immunized unless they have a medical exemption.

Wakefield is making the rounds in California and online, rallying opposition to the bill. 

Introduced in response to the measles outbreak that began at the Anaheim Disney theme parks, SB 277 would eliminate parents' rights to not vaccinate their children due to personal or religious beliefs.

The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this week. It's drawn thousands of opponents to the state Capitol - lobbying that Wakefield has endorsed in online videos and in-person appearances.

"If you are going to do everything in your power to prevent these insidious bills, these dangerous bills [from] passing, you must get in front of your representative," Wakefield says in a March 31 YouTube video posted by the anti-SB277 group Our Kids Our Choice.

He urges parents who will visit lawmakers in Sacramento to bring their children, "particularly if they're vaccine-injured - if they have autism, for example."

Last week, Wakefield addressed hundreds of students at Life Chiropractic College West in Hayward, encouraging them to be the "pitchforks and torches" in Sacramento demanding that lawmakers reject SB 277, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

On Wednesday evening, Wakefield spoke at a private, sold-out event at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, hosted by the group Moms in Charge. A KPCC reporter was not granted entry.

Wakefield stoked the global anti-vaccination movement in 1998 when he published a now-infamous study in the British medical journal The Lancet, claiming that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause autism.

The Lancet subsequently retracted the article, and Wakefield was banned from practicing medicine in Britain for ethical lapses. Numerous studies - including one published just last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association - have found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Yet Wakefield has stuck to his guns over the years, insisting that his findings were correct. That has made him a heroic figure for many in the anti-vaccination movement.

Outside Wednesday's event in Dana Point, several people expressed their support for Wakefield and his stance on SB 277 as they headed inside. Nikki Willis of San Juan Capistrano said she supports Wakefield and his "pioneering" anti-vaccination research, especially in the face of the legislation in Sacramento.

Rebecca Moss acknowledged that Wakefield is a controversial figure. But she added that some people "perceive him as someone who was really scorched by the aggressiveness of trying to drive this research underground, and really can’t stay underground anymore."

Moss predicted that Wakefield's appearance would help mobilize opposition to SB 277. 

"There's going to be a lot of families attending who don't want the state to take away their right to choose what gets injected into their body," noted Moss, who said she lives in Orange County. Her two children had their initial childhood immunizations, she added, but won't be receiving any further ones.

Wakefield planned to lobby against a similar bill in Oregon before it was dropped in March. His involvement - and his ongoing influence - disappoint Dr. Debbie Lehman, clinical director of pediatric infectious diseases at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

"I think it's disheartening that there's still people that are willing...and listen to a physician who's been so discredited on so many levels,” Lehman said.

In addition to his efforts against SB 277 and similar legislation, Wakefield says in the YouTube video that he is working on a documentary that will contend that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suppressed evidence suggesting a link between vaccines and autism. The Dana Point event was a fundraiser for the documentary.

"I've achieved a degree of freedom which has enabled me to shake off all of the strictures of my medical training: the need to control, the need for the system to have you fall in line and obey orders, ultimately orders now that come from the pharmaceutical industry and others," he says in the video. "I'm free from all that."

This story was updated to reflect that Our Kids Our Choice was formed to oppose SB 277.