Alternative Health Care Can Be Great. But for Covid-19, There Is No Alternative to a Vaccine but Illness, Disability, and Death

Osteopaths and chiropractors, who have long battled anti-vaxxers in their ranks, need to take a stronger institutional stand against misinformation and conspiracy theories

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The Covid-19 Delta variant rages. Texas and Florida—whose governors have dragged their knuckles on mitigation efforts throughout the pandemic—are responsible for a third of the nation’s caseload. Thus, prominent anti-vaxxers are back in the news.

Two weeks ago, Cecilia Lenzen at the science webzine Nautilus put the spotlight on a “Disinformation Dozen,” social media influencers who pump out the most potent, mendacious, and influential bilge against the Covid-19 vaccine. The array of people is a representative mix of conspiratorial thinkers. It includes progressive and conservative wellness entrepreneurs, anti-Semites, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. You will be glad to know that none of these people are MDs. Still, of the group, nine are health practitioners of some kind. Of that nine, four are licensed to practice medicine: three are osteopaths and a chiropractor.

I decided to go down that rabbit hole, and this is where it led me.

First of all, let’s have some definitions. Osteopathic medicine was founded by Andrew Still, a Kansas medical doctor and Civil War surgeon, on the theory that all human illness resulted from an out-of-whack musculoskeletal system. Still believed that manipulations of various kinds returned the human body to its natural state and unleashed a restored immune system to fight disease. As a result, he and his followers adamantly opposed allopathic medicine whose interventions and remedies, they believed, were harmful to the body’s natural capacity to maintain health.

Chiropractic medicine makes a similar argument: all illness originates in the nervous system and responds to spinal adjustments. It was introduced in 1899 by a Canadian named Daniel David Palmer, who claimed that he had received the secrets to his treatments from the afterlife. Palmer, who also believed in magnetic healing and spiritualism, opposed all the basics of modern medical practice, including vaccines, on the theory that they interfered with the body’s natural capacity to heal itself. Today, the best reason to see a chiropractor is for pain related to the back and neck, which drugs and surgery often do not resolve.

If you are a devotee of traditional medicine, it’s probably worth saying that both osteopathic and chiropractic practices resonated with their early audiences for a reason. By the late 19th century, allopathic medicine had professionalized. At the same time, there were all kinds of theories being promoted by medical doctors (MDs) that we would now recognize as quackery. For example, there was the idea that various forms of lust could, and should, be cured by removing or trimming back genitalia. Or the notion that cocaine (which could be purchased over the counter) was an excellent pick-me-up and weight-loss remedy. By the 1950s, MDs were putting routinely putting women on Dexedrine to help them lose weight.

Today, most osteopaths and chiropractors recognize the benefits and limits of their methods. They think about the body as a whole organism, which few MDs do, and at the same time, very few would imagine that they could cure a tumor without an allopathic intervention. Thus, it was no surprise to me to learn that the American Osteopathic Association strongly supports vaccination in general and the Covid-19 vaccine specifically and has issued a strong statement about its member promoting misinformation and hoaxes.

By contrast, the American Chiropractic Association affirms that it has no evidence that the immune-boosting techniques their membership values can defend patients against Covid-19. But it has not taken a stance on the efficacy of vaccines or members who spread disinformation about vaccines.

This is important because a significant number of chiropractors do not just have personal reservations about vaccination. It is woven into their professional belief system, and the profession has a long history of anti-vaccine messaging. In 2016, only 17% of Canadian chiropractors’ websites that mentioned vaccines were positive about their use, and 63% were strongly negative. At least one group of researchers has argued that the Covid-19 crisis has presented an opportunity for licensing organizations to address persistent false claims about vaccination from the chiropractic community.

As yet, that has not happened.

So this is how some osteopaths and chiropractors have assumed a prominent role as experts in the anti-vaxxer movement. Like professionals in yoga and other wellness communities, medical practitioners who embrace alternative theories of health (many of which can effectively address pain and disease) are statistically more likely to be skeptical of vaccines because their entire philosophy is restorative, not interventionist. And they are far more influential as sources for anti-vaxxers mustering evidence to bolster their positions because state boards license them.


Rather than creating an opportunity to discuss and reboot anti-vaxxer sentiment in the osteopathic and chiropractic communities, Covid-19, and the fear it generates, has given some shysters a new prominence. As a result, a small group of practitioners is playing a significant role in dividing their professional communities on the issue—and, let’s say it, killing people. Here’s a sample:

  • Joseph Mercola, a Florida DO. He also has a thriving supplements business, which he touts as a better alternative to vaccination. In addition, he has donated almost $3 million to the National Vaccine Information Center, a font of anti-vaxxer propaganda and organizing.

  • In June, Sherri Tenpenny, an Ohio DO, and long-time anti-vax campaigner, testified before the Ohio legislature that the Covid-19 vaccine magnetizes human bodies and interacts with 5G cell towers. “I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures all over the Internet of people who have had these shots, and now they’re magnetized,” Tenpenny said to a room full of credulous Republicans. “They can put a key on their forehead. It sticks. They can put spoons and forks all over them, and they can stick because now we think that there’s a metal piece to that.”

  • Rashid Buttar, a North Carolina DO and now de-platformed social media influencer, has previously been cited by the state medical board for unprofessional conduct and, among other things, tells his followers that masks actually cause Covid-19 and they shouldn’t wear them.

  • Georgia DO Carrie Madej tells her YouTube followers that the Covid-19 vaccines “are designed to make us into genetically modified organisms" and will “hook us all up to an artificial intelligence interface."

  • Georgia chiropractor Josh Paxton has posted multiple videos on Facebook of people who he claims were vaccinated and suffered severe side effects, like convulsions and rashes, telling patients that they are “being lied to” by the government and that they should “Run from this untested medical EXPERIMENT.”

  • Jack Wolfson, an Arizona DO, is now under investigation by the state medical board. When asked about a little girl with leukemia who had then contracted measles after an outbreak at Disneyland traced to unvaccinated children, Wolfson responded with the false information that it was “very likely that her leukemia is from vaccinations in the first place."

As Amesh Adalja, a medical doctor and a Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, noted in 2015, reservations about vaccines in the osteopathic community remain significant even as medical knowledge about disease transmission, immunology, and vaccine safety improve. As a result, doctors of Osteopathy (DOs) are far less likely to have confidence in vaccine safety and are 2.5 times less likely than medical doctors (MDs) to vaccinate their own children. In addition, they were more likely to overestimate the harm and side effects of vaccines and less likely to believe that research was making vaccines safer.

Adalja argues that these reservations do not stem from osteopathic training but from differing philosophies of health and how closely a practitioner adheres to the original narrative of the profession. For example, Sherri Tenpenny’s obsession with magnetized bodies has a genealogy in Still’s nineteenth-century use of magnets to cure disease. At the same time, Mercola’s marketing of supplements is both a money-making enterprise and a radical attachment to Still’s (often correct) belief that patent medicines are full of poisons.

Yet, if you took your child to the doctor with a fever, and he started applying leeches, you might make an emergency call to the state licensing board, wouldn’t you? And you would do that knowing that it did not discredit all MDs.

I suspect that this hesitancy to cast aspersions on a generally legitimate form of alternative health care is behind state boards’ reluctance to act against rogue or over-zealous chiropractors and osteopaths. Unfortunately, it remains a problem that any osteopath is broadcasting misinformation—much less wacky, non-scientific conspiracy theories. The situation is even more serious in the chiropractic community, where practitioners are not required to receive any training in infectious diseases. Yet many give authoritative and false advice, as well as dire warnings, about vaccines that are, in many cases, life-saving.

And they aren’t just a danger to their own patients. Because they have a vast social media audience, are profiting from the misinformation, and have now helped fuel a fourth, and an even deadlier, wave of the pandemic, they are a danger to all of us.

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Short takes:

  • Because of restrictive laws in the surrounding states, Florida is already an abortion destination, writes Susan Rinkunas of Rewire News Group. But that will intensify if the restrictive Mississippi anti-abortion law becomes the case that overturns Roe v. Wade in the next SCOTUS term. Although Florida has an ambitious, anti-science, Trump-cuddling governor, the right to abortion is currently embedded in the state’s Constitution. But providers expect more and poorer customers if the Court flips that 1973 decision. However, any change in Florida laws would leave Virginia as the only abortion sanctuary in the South. (August 3, 2021)

  • Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville is in hot water, not just because there is a credibility gap between his account of where he says he was on J6 and the facts. Josh Moon of The Alabama Political Reporter writes that Tuberville has made “more than 100 stock transactions totaling nearly $3.5 million” in the last six months. Senate Ethics rules require timely reports on all such financial activity. “The shares he failed to disclose also included healthcare companies, an industry he oversees as a member of the Health Committee.” Tuberville said that “he was unaware the transactions had occurred.” The former college football coach has a rocky history when it comes to rules. He was investigated for academic violations in 2006. In 2010 he was co-owner of a hedge fund that collapsed when his partner went to jail for fraud and was mentioned in a 2011 recruiting scandal in which players were allegedly paid to sign with Auburn and other teams. (August 2, 2021)

  • North Carolina is one of two states that permits 14 year-olds to marry (the other one is Alaska.) But efforts in the state legislature are coming up against a major roadblock to raising the age for legal marriage. A lot of people in the state House support the principle of banning child marriages, “but couldn’t vote to pass it because they either married as minors, married a minor or know someone who married as a minor.” (Danielle Battaglia, The News and Observer, August 2, 2021; H/T Jill Filipovic)