Vaxxed is Axed

Tribeca Film Festival cut anti-vaccine production

film and vaccine copy

Illustrator: Emily Hill

A controversial documentary has been pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival lineup just days after being given the coveted spot. “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” promises to expose a devastating institutional effort to conceal evidence connecting childhood vaccination to autism. Robert De Niro, who founded the festival 15 years ago, initially pushed for the film’s inclusion in an effort to forward the discussion about autism. De Niro, who has a child with autism, stated that he is not anti-vaccine, but merely wanted to provide “the opportunity for conversation around the issue.”

However, after a review with the festival’s film team and some members of the scientific community, the decision was made to remove the film from the lineup. In De Niro’s official statement, he expresses concerns about sharing the film due to unspecified content issues, and concludes that the film does not contribute to the conversation in the way that he had hoped it would. In response to the festival’s actions, many have expressed outrage at the perceived censorship, claiming that the decision to remove the film is a violation of freedom of speech.

De Niro, who has a child with autism, stated that he is not anti-vaccine, but merely wanted to provide ‘the opportunity for conversation around the issue.

The reaction is unsurprising. People tend to feel a threat to their freedom of speech when decisions are made about what they should and should not see. However, in this case, the issue is not whether a discussion can be had, but who should be a part of that discussion. And in that light, the debate about “Vaxxed” becomes more clear-cut.

The problems begin and end with the film’s director, Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield published the original study in 1998 demonstrating a link between autism in children and the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The study has since been discredited by numerous independent researchers, and the British General Medical Council subsequently ordered a tribunal investigation into Wakefield’s conduct. The tribunal was able to prove three dozen charges against Wakefield, including charges of dishonesty and abuse of developmentally challenged children. In the conduct inquiry, it was discovered that Wakefield and two of his colleagues subjected children with autism to unnecessary, invasive medical procedures. To top off the scandal, the actions of the study were done without the requisite approval of an institutional review board. The findings resulted in a retraction of Wakefield’s paper and his removal from the UK medical register.

From the “Vaxxed” film description and trailer, it seems to focus a significant amount of attention on the alleged Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) whistleblower, William Thompson. Thompson made claims that the CDC team responsible for one of the studies disproving Wakefield attempted to destroy significant data proving his original claims true. This information has been widely rejected, but Thompson did manage to persuade a few people. Brian Hooker, a biochemical engineer, was contacted directly by Thompson about the evidence. Hooker published his own paper, using data provided by Thompson, showing an apparently suppressed link between vaccination in a particular age group of African-American boys and autism. The statistical analysis in his study is almost comically flawed, and the journal in which it was published released a retraction note citing concerns about validity and competing interests on the part of the author.

The desire to examine the possible causes of autism is completely understandable. With growing attention being given to the mystery of autism’s cause, it is natural that those with personal ties to the issue want closure. But it is not productive to continue raising the hopes of those who are searching for answers by allowing the continued spread of false information. Further, the claims made by the likes of Wakefield, Thompson, and Hooker have had a very grave impact beyond false hope. The effects of Wakefield’s original study are still present in our society in lower rates of immunization and the reemergence of formerly controlled diseases, sometimes with deadly results. As a society, we instill a lot of trust in doctors and scientists—those whom we perceive as being the most knowledgeable, credible, and committed to doing no harm. When irresponsibility and ego lead to betrayed trust and a public health epidemic, there will be consequences. Freedom of speech does have its limits when it comes to causing harm. These men have done their harm, and have therefore lost their right to have their voices heard on this matter.