An event hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton’s civil rights organization and poised to raise dangerous anti-vaccine viewpoints in Harlem this weekend was canceled by the group on Tuesday, after physicians and public health officials argued that the event was harmful and targeted the African American community.
“We said both sides must be heard — we haven’t taken a position yet,” Sharpton said, asked about the National Action Network’s decision to host the event in the first place. Sharpton clarified that he was not hosting the event and was not even sure whether he’d attend.
The free event, which was planned to be hosted by NAN’s chapter in Harlem, was slated to come just one month after New York City declared an end to its largest measles outbreak in nearly 30 years. The outbreak, largely attributed to vaccine misinformation and a dip in immunization rates in the orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, infected 654 people and cost the city over $6 million, spurring a repeal of religious exemptions to vaccines in the state.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the notorious anti-vaccine proponent leading the effort to sue the state over the repeal of that law, was one of the speakers slated to attend the event. The event was set to be hosted by Curtis Cost, president of the National Action Network’s Scholars Committee, who in 1998 hosted another event in Harlem sponsored by Sharpton and NAN providing a “both sides” approach calling into question whether AIDS was caused by HIV.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has said, “Claims that vaccines are linked to autism, or are unsafe when administered according to the recommended schedule, have been disproven by a robust body of medical literature.”
Other public health experts criticized the move to host the event in Harlem, a New York City neighborhood with a large black community.
“In 2019 the antivaccine ringleaders targeted the Orthodox Jewish community to flood them with a phony pamphlet, hold teleconferences, robocalls, and town hall meetings with fake information about vaccines,” Peter Hotez, professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, told BuzzFeed News by email. “Now they have their sights set on Harlem to ignite an even bigger measles epidemic on the African American community there. Why Rev Sharpton would attack his own community in this way defies common sense or explanation.”
Asked about NAN’s decision to cancel the event on Tuesday, spokesperson Rachel Noerdlinger said: “When it was ascertained that it wasn’t enough of a cross-sector to have a balanced conversation on both sides, it was pulled.”