Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

Florida is swamped by disease outbreaks as quackery replaces science | Florida

Shortly before Joseph Ladapo was sworn in as Florida’s surgeon general in 2022, the New Yorker ran a short column welcoming the vaccine-skeptic doctor to his new role, and highlighting his advocacy for the use of leeches in public health.

It was satire of course, a teasing of the Harvard-educated physician for his unorthodox medical views, which include a steadfast belief that life-saving Covid shots are the work of the devil, and that opening a window is the preferred treatment for the inhalation of toxic fumes from gas stoves.

But now, with an entirely preventable outbreak of measles spreading across Florida, medical experts are questioning if quackery really has become official health policy in the nation’s third most-populous state.

As the highly contagious disease raged in a Broward county elementary school, Ladapo, a politically appointed acolyte of Florida’s far-right governor Ron DeSantis, wrote to parents telling them it was perfectly fine for parents to continue to send in their unvaccinated children.

“The surgeon general is Ron DeSantis’s lapdog, and says whatever DeSantis wants him to say,” said Dr Robert Speth, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at south Florida’s Nova Southeastern University with more than four decades of research experience.

“His statements are more political than medical and that’s a horrible disservice to the citizens of Florida. He’s somebody whose job is to protect public health, and he’s doing the exact opposite.”

Ladapo’s advice deferring to parents or guardians a decision about school attendance directly contradicts the official recommendation of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which calls for a 21-day period of quarantine for anybody without a history of prior infection or immunization.

It is also in keeping with Ladapo’s previous maverick proclamations about vaccines that health professionals say pose an unacceptable danger to the health of Florida residents. They include official guidance to shun mRNA Covid-19 boosters based on easily disprovable conspiracy theories that the shots alter human DNA and can potentially cause cancer – “scientific nonsense” in the view of Dr Ashish Jha, a former White House Covid response coordinator.

Meanwhile, with measles having been eradicated in the US since 2000, the disease’s resurgence, paired with Ladapo’s latest misadventure, have prompted a new round of mocking commentary. Florida: Come for the Sunshine, Leave With the Measles, opined the Orlando Sentinel; “Measles? So On-brand for Florida’s Descent Into the 1950s”, was the take of the Tampa Bay Times.

The backlash prompted the Florida department of health to publish “clarifying information” this week, in which it insisted that the stay-at-home recommendation had in fact been given to parents at Manatee Bay elementary school, and attempted to blame the media for “reporting false information and politicizing this outbreak”.

Department officials repeated the claim in a subsequent statement.

“The media has continued to peddle the narrative that Dr Ladapo has defied science in his recent letter. In reality, he has used available data and immunity rates to drive policy decisions impacting Manatee Bay Elementary,” the deputy press secretary Grant Kemp said.

“97% of students at Manatee Bay Elementary have received at least one dose of the MMR immunization. Outbreaks are occurring in multiple states, and the national immunization rate for measles is less than 92%.”

Reporting false information, incidentally, is something Ladapo is familiar with himself. He was found to have personally manipulated data in a 2022 study of Covid-19 vaccines to wrongly assert they posed an elevated risk of cardiac illness or death in young men.

To Speth, and numerous other medical experts, Ladapo’s risky succession of positions denying even the most obvious benefits of immunization and vaccination is a symptom of a wider political assault by the rightwing, which carries deadly potential.

Its origins, Speth believes, lie in a long-discredited study by the disgraced British former doctor Andrew Wakefield falsely tying the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism, but which was enthusiastically embraced by anti-vaxxers and other extremists in the US.

“The Wakefield study was a gross fraud, yet today up to 25% of our population believes it, and opportunistic politicians seize on the sentiment to tell people what they want to hear about the danger of vaccines,” he said.

“Republicans are at war with medical science, and that’s a horrible tragedy. But I feel like Cassandra, talking about the public health threat. We’re going to start seeing a lot more children die of infectious diseases that could be prevented if they were vaccinated.”

Ladapo has been hailed a “superstar” by DeSantis, who sidelined then dumped his predecessor Scott Rivkees for contradicting the governor’s position on social distancing and face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ladapo became a vocal cheerleader of the governor’s anti-mask, vaccine and lockdown decrees; and was a prominent member of Frontline Doctors of America, a fringe cluster of radical physicians that pushed ineffective medicines such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as a cure for the virus.

The group’s founder, Simone Gold, received a 60-day prison sentence in 2022 for taking part in the 6 January Capitol riot.

Additionally, Ladapo was a signatory to the Great Barrington Declaration, an open letter claimed to have been signed by 15,000 scientists and medical professionals calling for a herd immunity approach to Covid, but which included a multitude of spoof names including Dr Johnny Bananas, Dr Person Fakename and Dr I P Freely.

Democrats in Florida say Ladapo’s handling of the measles outbreak is one more reason why they believe he is unsuited for a job in which he earns in excess of $600,000 a year, paid almost equally by the state and University of Florida, where he was given tenured professorship as an incentive to come.

“What’s so sad about it is it’s completely preventable,” said state senator Tina Polsky, who has been one of Ladapo’s staunchest critics.

“In a moment of crisis we need the best level-headed people to be running that department of health, and now we’re in our next crisis after Covid and we have someone who doesn’t want to follow accepted scientific guidelines in charge.

“To pretend that the vaccine is unnecessary to eradicate measles is completely illogical, because that’s the reason it’s been gone from our country. It will have some devastating outcomes, it’s going to scare a lot of people, and kids are going to be out of school, which has its own negative outcomes.”

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