In what may be the first electoral fallout from the emergence of anti-vaccine campaigning, a local Democratic Party candidate for an open seat in the Connecticut House of Representatives has been narrowly defeated after her involvement in a film funded by supporters of the disgraced British former doctor Andrew Wakefield.
Tara Cook-Littman, 38, from Fairfield, Connecticut, sought election in the state's 134th district, where she had achieved a profile as a campaigner over genetically modified foods. "I am a real mom living in the real world trying to feed my family real food," she explained on her website.
But in what looks like a moment of confusion, Cook-Littman agreed to participate in an independently-made film, shown on the internet during the election campaign. The film linked her concerns with anti-vaccine activism and sought to rehabilitate Wakefield, who in 2010 lost his license to practise medicine over vaccine research dishonesty.
"This is not just about our food, it is about taking back our government," Cook-Littman is shown in the film telling an interviewer, among a string of clips featuring anti-vaccine activists. "We need to take back the legislative process."
The film - titled Bought - was made by a freelance filmmaker, Jeff Hays, who raised funds for his project by issuing three separate appeals for money to three different interest groups, and then editorialising to link their claims. Web publicity suggests that by far the biggest group involved were anti-vaccine activists supporting Wakefield, whose research on the MMR vaccine in the 1990s has been discredited.
"Andrew Wakefield has a role in this film because there is new evidence that has been uncovered that suggests his findings were correct," Hays said in a fundraising press release. "The media has tried him and virtually ruined his reputation. I’m here to expose the facts."
The film - itself bought by interest groups - was released on 10 October, and in the last weeks of the election campaign became an issue in the Connecticut house of representatives district centred on Fairfield and Trumbull, in which Cook-Littman was locked in a tight race with local Republican Laura Devlin.
“In Ms. Cook-Littman’s world, she wants to bring us back to an era where children and adults go unvaccinated and modern medicine and technology are thrown away, which is a frightening image,” Fairfield GOP town committee chairman James Millington was reported as telling the local Trumbull Times.
Trumble Republican chair Paul Lavoie drove the same point home: “While Ms. Cook-Littman is entitled to her beliefs and notions about vaccinations, I believe that these are dangerous claims and positions that could have serious implications on our public health and safety.”
Mother of three Cook-Littman, however, accused Republicans of a "total distortion" of her views, and protested that she had not meant to back anti-vaccinationists. She said that all of her children were up-to-date with their shots and she was "disgusted that this even needs to be said."
“I was interviewed as a national leader of the GMO labeling movement — A movement that I am proud of and has the support of 94% of the American public,” she told the newspaper. “I support vaccinations for their obvious public health benefits, and have never said otherwise."
But the damage may have already been done in a small community where voters expect their representatives to share the electorate's values. Promotional material for Hays's film made clear that he intended to attack vaccines, GMOs and pharmaceuticals as what he represented to be assaults on health by big business.
As part of an apparent strategy to rehabilitate Wakefield - whose research on the MMR vaccine was dubbed by the British Medical Journal to be "an elaborate fraud" - Hays also sought, but failed, to include an interview with Dr Tom Jefferson, of the Cochrane Collaboration in Italy, a noted sceptic regarding the benefits of flu vaccine.
"It is not the first time that Wakefield tries to involve me in his games through go-betweens and it seems I always get caught, but warned off in time," Jefferson said recently.
Cook-Littman, it appears, was less fortunate. The local result - overshadowed by the Republicans seizing control of the US Senate - was called shortly after midnight on 5 November, at which time Cook-Littman - a former New York City prosecutor - had won 1,764 votes to Devlin's 1,887. With all precincts reporting, the vote was Cook-Littman 3,992 (47%); Devlin 4,542 (53%).
The impact of the row on such a close vote is difficult to disentangle. But the Democrat hopeful's defeat in her bid to enter the state's general assembly may prove a useful reminder to politicians, local and national, that almost everyone vaccinates their children.