A familiar debate over vaccine safety is playing out on a billboard on a quiet stretch of road in southeast Kansas City.
The sign on Blue Parkway near Hardesty Avenue features a picture of Nicholas Catone, who was 20 months old when he died in May 2017.
His dad, Nick Cantone, posted on Facebook last year that the autopsy results were inconclusive, but he and his wife believe Nicholas died of complications from the Diptheria-Tetanus-Pertussis, or DTaP, vaccine, which he received 17 days before his death.
Nick Catone is a former professional mixed martial arts fighter from New Jersey. Since his son died, he and his wife Marjorie Madison-Catone have teamed with California-based anti-vaccine group Learn the Risk, which says it has placed 32 total billboards around the world.
According to Catone’s Facebook page, the ones featuring his son are in Kansas City, Boston, Syracuse, N.Y.; New Haven, Conn.; and his hometown of Brick Township, N.J.
The Kansas City billboard went up within the past week. It referenced that Madison-Catone is a registered nurse.
“As a nurse I was never taught vaccines can kill until my son was a victim,” it read.
But by Wednesday morning, someone had used red and white spray paint to drastically change the sign’s message to: “Vaccines save. Disease kills.”
The vandalism is a microcosm of a national debate, as a small but growing group of anti-vaccine advocates butt up against people who fear a resurgence of illnesses that vaccines have prevented for decades.
Major national and international medical groups and government agencies support vaccination. While vaccines carry some risk of bad reactions, the vaccines on the Centers for Disease Control-recommended schedule have undergone years of research to prove that the risks of serious complications from the shots is generally far lower than the risk of serious complications from the diseases they prevent.
“Nationwide millions of vaccines are given daily,” said Tiffany Wilkinson, director of the Kansas City Health Department’s division of communicable disease prevention. “These vaccines have been very, very important throughout our history to reduce the spread of potentially dangerous diseases. The small and rare risks associated with vaccines are outweighed by the enormity of the diseases we’re preventing by providing these vaccines to children.”
Still, anti-vaccine sentiment is growing in the U.S. and abroad, and contributing to a rise in preventable disease. Europe experienced 41,000 measles cases and 37 deaths in the first six months of 2018.
The Kansas City area experienced two measles outbreaks this year that caused 35 cases and several hospitalizations, but no serious complications. Local and state health officials spent at least $170,000 in public money to prevent the outbreaks from spreading further.
Learn the Risk is a nonprofit in Santa Barbara that started in 2015. According to its most recent tax filing, it had raised about $100,000 by the end of 2016 and spent about $74,000, mostly on advertising campaigns, “outreach events” and social media marketing.
Its website states that the human papillomavirus, or HPV, vaccine “has a high risk of serious reactions and limited, if any, benefit.”
According to the National Cancer Institute: “Widespread HPV vaccination has the potential to reduce cervical cancer incidence around the world by as much as 90 percent” and “no serious side effects have been shown to be caused by the vaccines.”
Cervical cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health and as of 2010, about 4,000 women died from it every year in the U.S.
A legal disclaimer at the bottom of the Learn the Risk website says the site is “for educational purposes only and does not offer medical advice.”
“Reliance about information on LearnTheRisk.org is solely at your own risk,” the disclaimer says.
The company that leases the Blue Parkway billboard, OutFront Media, says on its website that about 70,000 adults see that sign every week.
Learn the Risk executive director Brandy Vaughan said via email Wednesday that she didn’t know the billboard had been defaced and “it’s truly a shame” and “absolutely disgraceful.”
“I believe parents should be given the full information about all pharmaceutical drugs and vaccines so they can make educated choices for their families,” said Vaughan, who identifies herself as a “former Merck sales executive turned natural health activist.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the wrong name for the Learn the Risk organization.