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Meet the New York couple donate millions to the anti-wax movement

"They should be allowed to have the measles if they want the measles," Del Bigtree told reporters outside an anti-vaccine forum in Brooklyn earlier this month aimed at the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. (Yana Paskova / For the Washington Post)

A wealthy Manhattan couple has emerged as significant funders of the anti-vaccine movement and has contributed more than $ 3 million in recent years to groups fearing the fear of immunization online and live events – including two forums this year at the epicenter of measles outbreaks in New York's ultra-orthodox Jewish community.

Hedge fund manager and philanthropist Bernard Selz and his wife Lisa have long donated to organizations focusing on art, culture, education and environment. But seven years ago, their private foundation was a completely different reason: groups questioning the safety and efficacy of vaccines.

How the seals came to support antivacin ideas is unknown, but their economic impact has been enormous. Their money has gone to a handful of permanent people who have played a major role in spreading doubts and misinformation about vaccines and the diseases they prevent. The false claims of the groups associate vaccines with autism and other disorders while reducing the risk of measles, resulting in increasing numbers of parents confusing the shoots. As a result, health officials have said that the potentially fatal disease has risen to at least 1,044 cases this year, the highest number for nearly three decades.

Selz Foundation delivers approx. three quarters of the funds for informed consent Network, a three-year charity that describes its mission of promoting drug and vaccine safety and parents' choice in vaccine decisions.

Lisa Selz serves as the group's president, but its public face and CEO is Del Bigtree, a former daytime television show producer that draws large crowds for public events. Bigtree has no medical credentials, but sticks out as an expert on vaccine safety and promotes the idea that officials have collaborated with the pharmaceutical industry to cover serious drug injuries. In recent weeks, Bigtree has headed forums in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County, NY, both areas confronting major measles outbreaks.

"They should be allowed to have the measles if they want the measles," Bigtree says. journalists outside the Brooklyn meeting on June 4. "It's crazy that there is this level of intensity around a trivial childhood disease."

Bernard Selz and his wife, Lisa. (Bertrand Rindoff Petroff / Getty Images)

Thanks to Selze's donations, ICAN is now the best-funded among a trio of organizations that have raised concerns about vaccines. ICAN brought in $ 1.4 billion in revenue in 2017, with just over $ 1 million. From the Selz Foundation, according to tax applications.

Selzerne and the groups they support are hardly the only dealers of anti-vaccine ideas. Environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a nephew of the late president, runs the Children's Health Defense, a charity that promotes a similar agenda; It brought in $ 727,000 in 2017, according to tax applications. Barbara Loe Fisher, who says her son was injured by vaccines, runs a Virginia-based nonprofit that combats legislative efforts to tighten vaccine requirements. Her group, the National Vaccine Information Center, brings about $ 1 million a year, according to its 2018 tax documents.

Although they are separately organized, the three groups reinforce each other's efforts. Kennedy and Bigtree often appear together at public events, while ICAN's website contains a link to Fisher's group. Bigtrees weekly live stream broadcast promoted by ICAN often has Kennedy.

New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot, who has fought the nation's only worst measles outbreak since October, said she had never heard of Selzes. "But I know science and science is ready – the MMR vaccine prevents measles," she said, using the common acronym for the vaccine, which prevents measles, hides and rubella. "Any suggestion to the contrary is a threat to New York's health and well-being."

Selzene did not respond to emails or phone messages. A woman who answered the phone at the couple's home on Manhattan's Upper East Side refused to identify herself. "There's nothing to say," she said before hanging.

Bernard Selz, 79, has more than 40 years of experience in the securities industry and runs Selz Capital, a hedge fund that owns a portfolio valued at over $ 500 million, according to recent filings by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Lisa Pagliaro Selz, 68, worked for Manufacturers Hanover Trust and Tiffany and Co. Since 1993, she has helped steer the Selz Foundation "focusing on humanitarian, educational, geriatric, homeopathic, animal causes and art", according to a LaGuardia Community College Foundation press release, where she was a board member in 2011 to 2016.

Selzernes sons – both young adults – refused to comment. Friends and family members reached by The Washington Post said they were unable to shed light on Selze's philanthropic choices.

"This is a topic we are not discussing," said Marilyn Skony Stamm, a business manager and close friend of Lisa Selz. "We have different opinions." Stamm refused to compose, except to say she appreciates her friendship with Selzes, as she called "an incredible philanthropic family."

Support for activist Wakefield

Tax applications for the couple's charitable foundation show they started supporting the movement in 2012 when they gave $ 200,000 to a legal fund for Andrew Wakefield, one of the most important anti-vaccine activists.

Wakefield, a former gastroenterologist, rose to fame in 1998 after publishing a paper in The Lancet, a respected British medical journal that binds the MMR vaccine to autism in eight children. A study by the UK's General Medical Council, which governs doctors, found Wakefield guilty of professional error in 2010 and revoked his license. The panel concluded that Wakefield had economic and ethical conflicts of interest and had acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly." Twelve years after the study's publication, the Lancet withdrew it.

Wakefield refused to comment on this report. He has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and said he was motivated by children's suffering.

"You've probably heard in the papers and elsewhere that I'm guilty of scientific fraud," Wakefield said via Skype to a forum in the spring in Rockland, NY "And I want to assure you that I've never been involved in Scientific Fraud What happened to me is what happens to doctors who threaten the bottom line of the drug companies. "

In 2012, Wakefield moved to Austin, where supporters started raising money for Dr. Wakefield Justice Fund, an attempt to sue journalists who had questioned Wakefield's results. The fund was "set up by friends and supporters … to respond to false claims against Dr. Wakefield; postpone the detrimental influence of special interest groups behind these allegations and protect Dr. Wakefield's work from both profit and politically motivated censorship and retaliation," says an archived version of the fund's website.

Wakefield's trial was unsuccessful, but the Selz Foundation found other ways to support its work. After launching two nonprofits in 2014, the Selz Foundation donated $ 1.6 million to the groups over the next many years, according to tax records. One, the AMC Foundation, was registered as a public charity to fund public health issues documentaries. The other was a Texas nonprofit company.

Wakefield used the money to help fund a documentary called "Vaxxed", which describes his claims of government coverage of vaccine risk. After filming, he and other producers landed in a black "Vaxxed" bus that stopped in churches, libraries and chiropractors to record interviews with parents who believe their children had been injured by vaccines.

"Almost every dollar in this movie to date has been donated by a handful of brave parents and philanthropists," the "Vaxxed" website says. In the credits, the film Selz Foundation first lists among 16 donors who financed the production.

The film also introduced a new face to the anti-wax movement: Bigtree. Once a television producer of "The Doctors", a daytime in Hollywood, Bigtree wrote to co-produce the film, which was released in 2016.

Tara Smith, an infectious disease expert at Kent State University who has studied The anti-vaccine movement, called the film "An Effective Piece of Propaganda", uses "heartbreaking stories of children allegedly injured by vaccination."

For example, a mother in the film mentions that her son developed autism after he was accidentally given a double dose of the MMR vaccine. Filmmakers provided no medical documentation in support of the claim, and the mother publicly stated that her son's medical records were stolen from her apartment.

The stories in the movie "often fall apart when scrutinized", Smith said.

Bigtree said the film's critics "disseminate misinformation" unless they "have evidence that the exact stories of vaccine damage by the parents occurring in" Vaxxed "are false."

Since the publication of Wakefield's Lancet paper, 21 studies have investigated vaccines and autism. No one has found any signs of a link. The latest and greatest study released in the spring involved 657,461 Danish children born between 1999 and 2010. Experts note that the first symptoms of autism often occur when children are about 12 months old – the same age they receive their first MMR shot – which gives Many parents blamed vaccines.

Last year, Wakefield dissolved the two nonprofits, according to Texas branches and Wakefield's co-founder, Polly Tommey. During its short life, the AMC Foundation exclusively granted grants to Autism Media Channel LLC, a private company also managed by Wakefield, Tommey and a third party, according to tax applications.

The grant supported the support a training film project.

Lawyer Marc Owens, a former director of the IRS division responsible for monitoring exempt organizations, said the event is "a very suspicious transaction." [19659036] "They transferred all their income, it appears – except for a small amount – to essentially self," said Owens. "It is extremely unusual to see this kind of expense from a public charity."

In an interview, Tommey defended the transactions.

"Everything was cleared legally and we held onto our mission," she said.

Tommey said she is now focused on the forthcoming release of a successor to "Vaxxed", which will contain information about Gardasil, a vaccine that protects against several strains of the human papillomavirus. Wakefield has meanwhile launched another public charity to fund training film projects, according to tax applications.

The same year, "Vaxxed" was released, Bigtree established the Informed Consent Action Network. The Selz Foundation donated $ 100,000 the first year – 83 percent of the charity funding, according to tax records.

When Bigtree became the leader in the movement, donations from Selzes grew: In 2017, the fund increased its contribution to more than $ 1 million – 74 percent of ICAN's total revenue. [19659044] Tax archives show charity spent more than $ 600,000 that year on legal fees. In 2018, the organization filed for freedom of action against federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services. Suitsne sought to force the release of data and documents related to vaccine safety.

Another quarter million dollars went against the wages of two ICAN officers: Catharine Layton, Group CEO, was paid $ 98,000. And Bigtree, previously unpaid by charity, was a $ 146,000 salary.

In a written reply to post questions, Bigtree said the compensation from ICAN is currently his only salary. He refused to answer questions about his relationship with Selzes.

"As many charities, we receive funding from multiple sources, and we do not discuss our donors or their donations as a policy issue," he wrote. "None of our donors make decisions about the science we are investigating or the lawsuits we file."

ICAN also reported travel expenses of over $ 148,000 in 2017. Bigtree often travels the country and speaks on wellness conferences and witnesses to lawmakers considering vaccine-related legislation.

At the height of a measles outbreak in the Washington state in February, for example, Bigtree in Olympia testified against a measure aimed at making it harder for parents to deviate from measles vaccinations to schoolchildren. The bill was adopted and signed in April.

At the end of April, Bigtree spoke in Salem, Ore., On a rally against a bill to have more children vaccinated against measles and other preventive diseases. One day later, he suffered a similar protest in Sacramento.

In a recent interview, Bigtree said he had discovered "this ability to talk to lawmakers I didn't know I had."

Bigtree also produces a weekly online talk show broadcast via Facebook and other social media that has brought in new fans. Among them are New York City Property Director Stephen Benjamin and his wife, Elizabeth.

The couple donated $ 20,000 to ICAN in 2017 through their Will B Strong Foundation, named in honor of their son, a leukemia survivor. In an interview, Benjamin said he felt called to support ICAN's efforts to raise vaccine safety issues after seeing Bigtree's appearance online.

"We feel strongly that this problem is not handled well by industry or our political leaders" Benjamin said in an email. "Absolutely what is happening right now – labeling of minority groups and censorship of meaning and discussion – is dangerous and un-American."

Bigtree's appearances before ultra-Orthodox Jewish audiences in New York in the spring at the heart of the outbreak have been particularly controversial. Some critics blasted his use of Holocaust images, including a yellow star of David he carried on his lap during a March rally in Austin.

Bigtree said he did so to protest the Rockland County's spring trials to ban unvaccinated children from public places. "They should quarantine them during Easter," he said during a forum in Brooklyn earlier this month. "They would not be allowed into their own synagogues. I pulled out a yellow star of David and said," I am standing with the Orthodox Jewish community in Rockland County, New York. ""

& # 39; No fear of the measles & # 39;

Most worry about public health officials are Bigtree's efforts to break down the severity of measles. At one point, Bigtree said he would be "ecstatic" if his two unvaccinated children aged 5 and 10 became ill.

"We haven't had a death for decades from this disease," he told the Brooklyn forum.

Bigtree told the post that his comments are backed by "peer-reviewed science or articles by recognized medical authorities."

"I can say that just about every one of our grandparents survived the measles or we wouldn't be here," he said. "They never talked about it as dangerous either. I have no fear of the measles."

In fact, the last confirmed US death of measles four years ago when a 28-year-old woman died in the Washington state. Meanwhile, hundreds of people have died of measles this year in other countries, including Madagascar, Ukraine and the Philippines.

Prior to 1963, when the vaccine was introduced to the United States, 3 million to 4 million Americans were infected each year, with thousands of developed complications leading to hospitalization or lifelong disability. Ca. 400 to 500 people died each year.

Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider that one in three children out of 1,000 infected with measles will die from complications.

Bigtree, who has appeared in the late summer, rejects such projections as government's fear mourning to promote the interests of the drug sector.

Del Bigtree is the public face of the Informed Consent Action Network, which gets three quarters of its funding from the seals. (Yana Paskova / For the Washington Post)

Alice Crites and Ben Guarino have contributed to this report.