The vaccination conspiracy film Vaxxed, directed by deregistered British medical practitioner Andrew Wakefield, was recently withdrawn from New York’s Tribeca film festival. Festival director Robert De Niro (who has a child with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD) pulled it, but he has since said he wants people to see it.

The film has been screened in New York at a small theatre in lower Manhattan, and I recently saw it there.

A couple of nights earlier, I was in Brooklyn at a presentation by documentary filmmaker Penny Lane. Lane’s new film, Nuts, explores the story of J.R. Brinkley, an unqualified quack practitioner. In the early 20th century he claimed to be able to cure infertility and impotence by the insertion of goat’s testicles into the scrotum of affected males.

Lane argues that we need to be increasingly wary of documentary films that promote quackery or some other vested interest, especially when dressed up as science. Unfortunately, in the internet age, it’s all too easy to find a million simple and wildly wrong answers to complex problems.

Which leads to the ability of quacks and junk scientists like Wakefield and J.R. Brinkley to fill the void.

Understanding the patterns of disease and their causes (epidemiology) requires a lot of training. It relies on good data, excellent statistical skills and a rigorous and sceptical response to questions of causality. People like those who work at the US Centers for Disease Control understand this. They also understand that an apparent correlation of data does not mean there is a causal link between phenomena. For example, the consumption of organic food has been rising along with the apparent rise in autism in the US. Is it organic food that causes autism?
The reason there has been an increase in autism spectrum diagnoses is, in fact, because the diagnostic criteria have changed in recent years. There has not been a spike in autism, as such. Rather, diagnoses have become more common, largely in order to identify people who need support and treatment. Further, other diagnoses such as “intellectual disability” have tended to be re-classified as ASD.

Wakefield doesn’t explain that his discredited 1998 “study” linking autism to vaccination contained falsified data and failed to advise of significant financial conflicts of interest. It was withdrawn with an apology from the Lancet after these errors and falsifications were revealed. Wakefield was deregistered as a medical practitioner in 2010.  His deregistration was also based on unnecessary invasive examinations he undertook on young people. He doesn’t mention his deregistration either.

Vaxxed presents Wakefield as a concerned medical specialist, the only one prepared to discuss the harm he claims the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine wreaks. He argues that the entire medical and research establishment is in league to maintain a tissue of lies in defence of the profits of pharmaceutical companies.
This claim, the foundation of the film, is laughable. But it gets more ridiculous.

A “study” cited in his dramatic, misleading film, was undertaken by an engineer whose child has ASD. This study, subsequently discredited and withdrawn from the journal that published it, purported to be a re-analysis of data collected by the Centers for Disease Control for their studies of any possible relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism in young children.

The details of this are moderately technical, but suffice to say that the “re-analysis” sought to impose an inappropriate method onto data collected for another type of study. That’s like comparing a banana to a Ferrari.

Vaxxed has a compelling narrative and presents Wakefield as a dissenting hero who is fighting for truth. Rather, in my view, it’s a cynical attempt to harness the sadness and distress of people whose children have been categorised on the autism spectrum.

And to what purpose? That’s difficult to know. Perhaps Wakefield wants to clear his name. Whatever the reason, Vaxxed is likely to lead to concerned and frightened parents delaying the vaccination of their children, or in some cases not vaccinating them. This will lead, inevitably, to more epidemics of preventable disease, and to avoidable deaths. The complications of measles, mumps and rubella are not insignificant. The young child of close friends of mine died from measles complications. Rubella causes birth defects. And so on.

Should we be critical of the claims of scientists? Yes. But our critical capacity should extend to all who present complex problems as though they were straightforward. In Wakefield’s fantasy world, evil and complicit doctors and scientists (all of them, apparently) condemn children to autism to keep Big Pharma happy. This is nonsense, but it may well appeal to people who want an answer that we don’t have.

There is truth in science, and more importantly respect for truth. For quacks, truth is clearly a negotiable commodity to be traded for publicity, prominence, and power.

If you want to know more about ASD, check out Autism Spectrum Australia.

*Charles Livingstone works in the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey