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Vaccine Debate Vexes Vermont Ski Resort Town

A planned symposium featuring notorious vaccine skeptics has set off a testy debate in the Vermont ski resort town of Stowe.
Image: Berlin Hit By Measles Outbreak
A children's doctor injects a vaccine against measles, rubella, mumps and chicken pox to an infant in Berlin.Sean Gallup / Getty Images

A planned symposium featuring notorious vaccine skeptics has set off a testy but polite debate in the Vermont ski resort town of Stowe.

But while the argument has lit up neighborhood, blogs, listservs and Facebook pages, local residents say they've planned the ultimate civilized counter-protest — a bake sale at a local brewery.

"I am going to be donating gluten-free goods," said Ericka Reil, one of the critics of the conference.

Stowe is an unlikely new front in the ongoing battle between a small but very vocal and organized group of vaccine critics and public health experts, physician groups and parents who say that message endangers children. Many of the speakers scheduled for the Stowe meeting have been blamed for an outbreak of measles in Minnesota that's now sickened 54 people and put more than a dozen children into the hospital.

The event, sponsored by a Stowe chiropractor, is being held at the town's public high school. That's angered local residents almost as much as the content of the daylong meeting, which stars the makers of the film "Vaxxed."

Related: Measles Outbreak Fueled by Fear Sends Kids to Hospital

"I am just furious that these anti-vaxxers are coming to Vermont because there is just so much misinformation going on around there about the causes of autism," said Reil, herself the mom of an 18-year-old boy with autism.

"There are these liars out there saying that it's vaccines that are causing autism," she said. "Because of not vaccinating their children we are having these outbreaks of diseases such as these outbreaks of measles in Minnesota."

A few parents have started an online petition asking the sponsor, chiropractor Bradley Rauch, to cancel the event.

Rauch did not return phone calls from NBC News.

“I am just furious that these anti-vaxxers are coming to Vermont."

"On May 20, 2017, a local chiropractor would like to host an event that features a panel of some of the most controversial figures in public health at Stowe High School," the petition reads. "These figures' incendiary rhetoric and hostile, anti-science views pose a threat to public safety and public health. This event has no place in our school."

Related: Anti-Vaccine Activist Says Trump Asked Him to Head a Commission

The organizers say they don’t want to give Rauch's event any more publicity than it already has, so they are urging residents to stay away from the school and attend the bake sale instead.

"We’ve got 275 signatures," said Tom Rogers, father of two children under the age of 3 who has been a vocal critic of Rauch's meeting. "For a small community that just kind of been Facebooking it around, that’s pretty decent."

Rogers also pointed to the Minnesota outbreak. "It really exemplifies what we are trying to avoid here in Vermont," he said. "In some ways, it is standing up for the increase in misinformation and pseudoscience and anti-science feelings that are growing at the national level."

Related: Experts Say Don't Attack Vaccine Skeptics

Rauch has declined to cancel and accuses his critics of threatening him. He issued a news release calling out one "local mom" he said he suspected of organizing protests against his meeting. "For this reason, a private security detail will be on hand to ensure that attendees can enjoy their day without being harassed," Rauch said in the news release.

"They have spread lies and misinformation bordering on slander," Rauch wrote in a letter to the Stowe Reporter.

"Our health care delivery system is seriously broken and numerous studies show our health and health care is continuing to worsen," the letter adds. "We are not anti-vaccine, anti-science, anti-mainstream. We are about broadening the discussion around raising healthier children."

“We are not anti-vaccine, anti-science, anti-mainstream."

On the speaker’s list is Andrew Wakefield, a disgraced Briton who lost his medical license after being found guilty of falsifying data and other unethical practices in a paper that purported to show a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. The Lancet medical journal withdrew the paper.

But Wakefield stirred up so much controversy that scientists have been working for more than 20 years to disprove his allegations. Multiple studies have come down firmly on the side of vaccine safety, but Wakefield and his high-profile supporters, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and television and film producers, travel to spread their arguments that the government, medical community and drug companies are colluding to poison children with forced vaccination.

Related: Film Asks for Vaccine Truth, But Science Found That Answer Already

Wakefield’s appearance at the event – which costs between $95 and $300 for a seat – has been canceled without explanation but other speakers are still scheduled.

Rauch’s website said profits will go to nonprofits, including Kennedy’s organization. It also advertises a new clinic being opened by Rauch in Stowe, the Vermont Center for Autism and Neuro-Developmental Disorders.

Local school officials have been put in the middle of the argument but say they have to stand up for free speech.

"It is our goal to support and promote a safe and healthy environment for children, and I certainly understand the controversy," Superintendent Tracy Wrend said in a statement. "However, Stowe schools have a long-held policy of making the facilities available to the community, which in no way implies an endorsement or sponsorship of the event being held."

Related: Measles Vaccine Gap Puts U.S. at Risk

The school district has distanced itself from the content of the event, and Rauch's website includes a disclaimer. "The Stowe School District neither sponsors nor endorses the content or opinions expressed by individuals or groups using school facilities," it reads.