As websites inflating the dangers of vaccines go, VacTruth.com is a beautifully built disaster, one that’s won a seal of approval from 75,000 followers and mommy bloggers nationwide.
But the 37-year-old Coloradoan behind it, Jeffry John Aufderheide, isn’t what his glossy website would have you believe. Vaccines just one of the many conspiracies in his rolodex—he’s also a 9/11 truther, gun-rights fanatic, and Infowars darling. Oh, and he lies about his time in the Navy.
The Navy discredited Aufderheide’s claim that he served as a "rescue swimmer," stating that he actually served four years as an Information Systems Technician, Third Class. “This is all the releasable information we have,” Sharon Anderson, the Chief of Naval Personnel Public Affairs, told The Daily Beast in an email. According to the job description on the organization’s website, Aufderheide’s role closely resembled that of an IT guy, one who acted as “admin on mainframe computers” and “management” on internal databases. A necessary position, it’s less the life-saving Navy SEAL that “rescue swimmer” with “top secret clearance” implies.
As the outbreak spreads from Northern California to the Chicago suburbs, websites like VacTruth and people like Aufderheide warrant even more scrutiny. By masking the values that may thwart his credibility, he’s taking vaccine conspiracies to a new level. As public figures from Hollywood to Washington speak out in favor of vaccines, the argument against them lives on.
VacTruth, with tweet-able messaging like “Your Child. Your Choice,” and a pristine blue interface, is easier to use and better looking than the Obamacare website. It’s smart design panders to moms who are thoroughly modern, genuinely compassionate, and naively misinformed. Armed with “evidence” from sources like Aufderheide, they’ve launched an anti-vaxx movement that’s brought measles bi-coastal and made phony science mainstream.
People like Aufderheide make up the grassroots movement that’s brought vaccine rates in America to historic lows. The phenomenon has enabled the return of diseases like measles, which infected nearly 650 Americans in 2014 and more than 100 in the first two months of this year alone.
In fairness, Aufderheide seems well-intentioned—something that those seeking to demonize him (and anti-vaxxers in general) often neglect to mention. It’s a fair argument from those on his side, who rightly take issue with excessive harassment that’s turned ignorant and unproductive.
As a father of four who was honorably discharged from the Navy in 2000, it is safe to say that Aufderheide is genuinely interested in the pursuit of the truth. The problem is, he hasn’t found it. His motivation, according to his “About” page, stems from developmental delays that his son Brandon suffered after, allegedly, receiving 21 different vaccines.
There’s no reason to challenge that this happened, but there are mounds of data to prove vaccines are not to blame. His theory—nay, insistence—that vaccines are lethal agents is not only misguided, it’s dangerous. The sophisticated website on which he preaches it perpetuates reckless science in a conniving way.
Aufderheide says he began writing about vaccines after extensively researching literature surrounding it. After deciding that vaccine injuries “happen frequently” and are too often a result of parents being forced into the decision, he launched the website in 2009.
One of its main goals seems to be exposing the “toxic chemicals” and “biological agents” that vaccines contain—including, but not limited to, heavy metals, aborted fetal tissue, calfskin, monkey kidney tissue, and mouse brain. He warns mothers that hospital births can be dangerous—as nurses may try to “inject your baby within hours of delivery,” and that if it happens that may be “too late.”
Russell Saunders, a pediatrician and Daily Beast contributor, says this alleged “harmful” ingredient list looks familiar. “I see the usual suspects. Any one of them may look frightening on its own, and in combination they likely strike many of Aufderheide’s fans as downright terrifying,” he says. “But every single one of them has either been investigated and found to have no connection with autism or be in vaccines in harmful amounts at all.”
Indeed an American Academy of Pediatrics paper on the topic from January 2013 pokes holes in this theory, refuting other popular claims that vaccines contain antifreeze and mercury. Saunders, an early vocal opponent of anti-vaxxers, echoes the sentiments of the medical community for blogs like this one. “This is just one of many sites promulgating and recycling the same old misinformation, again and again,” he says. “The components in vaccines don’t cause any of the things he says they do, as study after study continues to show.”
While many other sites on the topic exist, the user-friendliness of the website and clean packaging seem particularly attractive to the modern moms of the Internet. Free downloads of hastily photocopied writing is also appealing, giving moms instant access to must-reads like: the “ingredient” list in vaccines, and the Lane Library’s 1920 edition of Charles Higgins’ Horrors of Vaccination, to name a few.
It’s one that modern mommy bloggers nationwide promote as fact. “If you haven’t heard of VacTruth, I highly recommend following their Facebook page and their website,” the popular mommy blogger behind LivingWhole wrote on Feb. 1. “They always provide great information for parents who are on the fence about vaccines and unlike many of the things we see in the media, it is always respectful.”
The post, sent out to Megan Heimer’s 12,000 followers, garnered a mass of likes and comments such as “I love vactruth!” but it’s places like this that Aufderheide’s message causes even more harm. While his website deals exclusively with vaccines, bloggers like Heimer have drawn a following of loving moms who seem determined to give their kids the best and healthiest lives they can.
As mothers, this seems not only their right, but their duty. Couched in between safe advice on things like healthy eating and the importance of essential oils are Aufderheide’s posts. But these are aimed not to people who have come to his site seeking this information, but moms who are invested in doing everything right. Moms who trust experts—of which Aufderheide, of his own admission, is not—with values that align with their own.
“I think it is great that VacTruth.com is making it possible for parents to get the important information,” writes “concerned mom” Heather Pinard. “[It] is not given to us by doctors when they want to vaccinate our children.”
A deeper look into Aufderheide’s activities outside the confines of the anti-vaxx website reveal even more radical concepts, which it’s doubtful these crunchy-granola moms would condone. In an op-ed for the Fort Collins Coloradoan in 2010, he staunchly defended gun rights in America with language harkening back to the Constitution: “Our life, liberty, and property are not a privilege to be granted by the government and on the whim of bureaucrats.”
In May 2013, during an interview on Alex Jones' InfoWars—who calls Aufderheide a fantastic writer that he’s been following for years—about a new government-funded mobile app that he believes is designed to track anti-vaxxers. Later in the same interview, Aufderheide claimed the polio vaccine gives people cancer. When asked by a user whether the chemicals in vaccines could affect the outcome of a person’s sexuality, he called it a “legitimate question.”
In Aufderheide’s home state, parents are allowed all three exemptions from vaccines—medical, religious, and philosophical—bringing the state’s overall vaccination rate to 81.7 percent (the nationwide average is 94.7). It’s a sobering statistic, one that paints a grim picture in the midst of a major measles outbreak.
But those angered by websites like VacTruth may be smart to take an alternate route to this debate—by staying out of it. “There is no rational argument to be had here, no amount of evidence or science or reason that will win any converts,” says infectious-disease specialist and Daily Beast contributor Dr. Kent Sepkowitz. “By agreeing to ‘debate’ and ‘argue,’ we lose.”
Research contributed by Brandy Zadrozny.