New Anti-Vax Documentary Could Put Kids' Lives in Danger

vaccineIf you've been following the almost decades-long debate over the alleged link between vaccines and autism, the name Andrew Wakefield likely rings a bell: He's the doctor behind the original 1998 paper claiming that vaccines could cause autism. His research has since been debunked, and he was also stripped of his medical license. But that hasn't stopped him from making an anti-vax documentary, which is being included in this year's Tribeca Film Festival -- much to the ire of parents and (licensed) doctors everywhere.

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Called Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, the film is Wakefield's first and is described thusly by the Tribeca Film Festival website:

Digging into the long-debated link between autism and vaccines, 'Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe' features revealing and emotional interviews with pharmaceutical insiders, doctors, politicians, parents, and one whistleblower to understand what's behind the skyrocketing increase of autism diagnoses today.

Sounds interesting, except when you stop to consider that this whole thing is from the perspective of the "whistleblower" who was found guilty by a hearing of his peers of "abuse of developmentally challenged children" and of "dishonesty" in his research. And, as we mentioned, consequently stripped of his medical license. So, you know, more than a little skewed -- and skewed in a potentially very dangerous direction, at that. 

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For their part, the Tribeca Film Festival released a statement explaining that it is "a forum, not a judge." So clearly the folks behind the festival feel that the responsibility in promoting public health is not theirs. But people are understandably up in arms over their support of the documentary, like documentarian Penny Lane, a former recipient of the Tribeca Film Institute's Documentary Fund and director of Nuts!.

As Lane wrote on her Facebook page, "issues around truth and ethics in documentary can get thorny. But this one should have been easy." She continued:

The anti-vaccination hoax has been completely discredited by now. This film is not some sort of disinterested investigation into the 'vaccines cause autism' hoax; this film is *directed by the person who perpetuated the hoax.* And this hoax isn’t cute, or fun, or thought-provoking. Very possibly, some people will walk away from your festival having been convinced, in part because of your good name and the excellence and integrity of your documentary programming, not to vaccinate their children. And very possibly people will die as a result.

Sadly, Lane is right. Because the thing is, if you take away the part about Wakefield's being a discredited "quack," as some are calling him, and all the evidence supporting the life-saving benefits and general safety of vaccines, the anti-vax argument can sound frighteningly convincing. I almost bought into it myself when my daughter was born nearly 15 years ago, at the height of the vaccine/autism controversy. There were just so many scary stories at that point, so many horrifying anecdotal tales -- and this was long before the discovery that Wakefield falsified evidence in his paper (which happened in 2010). So I understand the fears of new parents, and their hesitation to put anything in their children's bodies that might have even the slightest chance of doing them serious harm. What finally pushed me over the line into the pro-vax camp was my then-pediatrician's stories about all the kids she saw in the ER every year suffering with the diseases many of us living in first-world countries assume have been all but eradicated. In so many words, she explained that those diseases are still out there, and that much she could prove -- while no one could prove that vaccines really did cause autism.
 
 
That was enough for me, but it's not going to be enough for every parent -- especially if he or she has watched an extremely persuasive documentary with the Tribeca Film Festival seal of approval featuring such baby and childcare experts as famous author and natural parenting advocate Dr. Jim Sears, whose books were like bibles to me as a new mom. (For the record, Sears says he is "pro-vaccine" but also "pro-truth" and thinks the CDC might have committed "fraud and conspiracy" in regards to the safety of vaccines.)
 
I get that the Tribeca Film Festival isn't obligated to make sure its documentaries are 100 percent truthful, but the implications and potential influence of this particular film are worrisome. Here's hoping that there's at least a disclaimer message of some kind added, and/or that parents take it upon themselves to research the "facts" presented by Andrew Wakefield before making any decisions.
 

 

UPDATE: Robert De Niro, co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, initially provided this statement regarding having Vaxxed included in ths year's Festival:

Grace and I have a child with autism and we believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined. In the 15 years since the Tribeca Film Festival was founded, I have never asked for a film to be screened or gotten involved in the programming. However this is very personal to me and my family and I want there to be a discussion, which is why we will be screening VAXXED. I am not personally endorsing the film, nor am I anti-vaccination; I am only providing the opportunity for a conversation around the issue.

But then he decided to pull the film from the line-up, stating: 
My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family. But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.
 
Thank you, De Niro.
 
 
Image via Partha S. Sahana/Flickr 
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