An email just arrived in my inbox recently titled "The Most Controversial Film in the Country — VAXXED — Set to Open in The San Francisco Bay Area this Friday!" Why it was not in my junk email box I am not sure, because it promotes a junk film pushing junk science.
The film, "Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe" did stir up some controversy when it was pulled from a New York film festival due to concerns that it contained harmful misinformation. The film was directed by disgraced ex-physician Andrew Wakefield, whose fraudulent research on a handful of kids kicked off an ongoing argument about the safety of vaccines — Wakefield alleged that certain vaccines caused autism. After his research was withdrawn and his medical license revoked — not only due to bad science but as he hid that he'd been funded with well over half a million dollars by lawyers hoping to sue vaccine manufacturers — and was angling to make a lot more cash from "alternative" approaches to diseases. Wholly discredited, Wakefield wrote a thick book attempting to resurrect his reputation and arguments. As one of the few who read it, I can tell you it was a complete failure in that regard.
Now comes this film, which was not available for viewing to me before deadline, but in any event prospective viewers should be aware of who is behind it. In addition to Wakefield, two other key people figure here. The film focuses on a so-called scandal at the Centers for Disease Control, wherein research supporting a link with autism was allegedly repressed. What actually happened was some paper copies of research results were tossed away. I've done this with hard copies myself. The data was still in computers, as most is. The so-called "CDC whistleblower," Dr. William Thompson, said this — although you won't see it here it in the film:"I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits."
Finally, there is one Brian Hooker, who is said to have exposed the alleged CDC fraud. But like Wakefield, deception is indeed something he knows firsthand — his own research paper on this topic was exposed as bogus — and he too did not disclose conflicts of interests and for those reasons his work was also retracted from publication. And these are the folks who keep saying that everybody else, from researchers to doctors to public health officials, are corrupt and only in it for the money.
Having one's published research withdrawn is an extreme occurrence, and as reputation is everything in science, honest researchers are very careful and we don't see many such cases. That this film features not one, but two such disgraced figures and the anti-vaccine movement relies so heavily upon them is telling. Their misinformation has spread like wildfire online, but anybody can look at fact-checking sites such as Snopes.com or many others to get educated in reality. In the meantime we have increasing outbreaks of preventable diseases among those who have refused shots for their kids or themselves — now linked conclusively to such unvaccinated sub-populations.
Vaccine science is complex and yes, imperfect. It has been controversial since the start, with doctors called "communists" and worse for many decades. And yes, there can be bad reactions to vaccines in some cases — but those are so relatively rare that it is like saying seatbelts, which have saved countless lives but contributed to harm in a few, are some kind of "plot."
A bit of scientific and statistical knowhow can go a long way towards dispelling such fears, but for most, just knowing that virtually all pediatricians, who love their kids as much as anybody, fully vaccinate their own kids — while often losing money on the shots they give in their offices (insurance reimbursement for some shots is poor, but that's another sad story). That's how much they believe in what the World Health Organization has called the most life-saving innovation of the past century.
A film like "Vaxxed" has not been and should not be censored. But anybody who contemplates seeing it should be made aware that they will not be watching science, but science fiction.
(Steve Heilig trained in public health, biology, epidemiology and economics at the University of California and works with the San Francisco Medical Society, among other organizations, and is co-editor of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. He receives no funding from vaccine or other pharmaceutical companies.)