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"Vaxxed" spreads like a plague

In 2016 the film "Vaxxed: from cover-up to catastrophe" was submitted to Robert De Niro's Tribeca Film Festival in New York. It was described as a film about the causes and treatment of autism, and was included in the festival program without being viewed by the organisers (De Niro has an autistic son, and like many parents in this situation he was eager for more information). After public protest triggered by the names of the people associated with the production of the film it was withdrawn from the festival, although De Niro said that he still thought it might contain information useful to parents in his situation.

The names of the people who made the film were such significant red flags that it was obvious to anybody familiar with the anti-vaccination agenda that it would simply be propaganda against vaccines and would contain little if any science or even truth. One person who saw the film commented that "Leni Riefenstahl would have baulked at making something this dishonest".

The first red flag was that the film was directed by Andrew Wakefield and appeared to be an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation. Wakefield was lead author on a paper published in The Lancet in 1998 which suggested a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. Further investigation discovered extremely poor methodology, very large conflicts of interest, medical malpractice and other evidence which was sufficient for The Lancet to subsequently retract the paper and for the authorities to remove Wakefield's rights to practice as a doctor.

The other major player was a Dr Brian Hooker, who claims to be a researcher in the areas of vaccines and autism. An image of some of his published papers shown in the film indicates that he has no problem working with deregistered medical practitioners, because an author on some of the papers has had his registration cancelled in several states in the US for prescribing a drug intended for the chemical castration of sex offenders to prepubescent children as a cure for autism.

The thrust of the film is that Dr Hooker was contacted by a Dr William W Thompson who supposedly revealed corruption in the CDC. Dr Thomson doesn't appear in the film but edited excerpts are provided from telephone conversations that were recorded without his knowledge. Dr Thomson is lauded in the anti-vaccination community as the "CDC whistleblower", but investigation of the whistle that he has supposed to have blown turns up a single study with a subject sample that makes it totally impossible to generalise to the population at large.

In 2017 the film was exhibited in a series of venues across Australia. The showings were organised by the Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network, so there could be no doubt that the purpose was to discredit vaccination. Dr Hooker toured with the film, as did two other imported anti-vaccination campaigners, Polly Toomey and Suzanne Humphries. Tickets had to be purchased without knowing where the film would be shown, and venues were announced by text message less than two hours before the shows started.

This was claimed to be to avoid protests, but as a main form of protest was to notify venues of the film's real nature the real reason was to deceive the venue owners until it was too late to do anything about it. The hall in a public high school in Queensland was booked by the owner of health food shop claiming that it was to be a presentation about organic food. The headmaster of the school was enraged when he found out that he had been deceived and issued a public statement condemning the film. Another contentious venue was a theatre in the science section of the Australian National University, and at least one local council expressed public dismay that their facilities had been used when the council fully supported vaccination.

One positive aspect of the film's Australian tour is that it renewed the desire for various governments to promote vaccination, and a joint statement was issued by all state and federal health ministers. The icing on the cake was that when Polly Toomey was about to leave Australia she was briefly detained by immigration officials and then banned from entering Australia for the next three years because of the danger she presents to public health.

Possibly the best comment on "Vaxxed", however, was made on the page about the film at the IMDB website. It took the form of a question posted in the FAQ section asking "Do vaccines cause autism?", answered by the single word "No" followed by 111 references to scientific papers investigating any connection between vaccines and autism and finding that none existed. Six of these papers have William W Thompson as one of the authors. That's right, the "CDC whistleblower" has himself authored papers showing that vaccines do not cause autism. Irony has never bothered the opponents of reason.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the September/October 2017 edition of Australasian Science


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