Courtesy / Carol E. Davis, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
I like a good conspiracy movie as much as the next person. There’s something exciting about supporting the underdog whistleblower out to expose "Big, Bad Government." But when I walk out, I know that what I've seen is fiction.
When a movie uses snippets of truth, it’s easier to believe the distortions. The film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe does just that. With its flashy production and heart-wrenching stories playing on the fears of every parent, it’s no surprise that even knowledgeable people are easily sucked into the story. Unfortunately, its premise is based entirely on false information.
Produced by medical journalist Del Bigtree and directed by former UK gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, whose license was revoked due to falsification of data, the film opens with clips from the Disneyland measles outbreak of 2015, followed by a series of comments from well-respected scientists and physicians.
Then it moves to a deep-throat-style voice of the "CDC whistleblower" who doesn’t know he’s being recorded. Next up, the film shows distraught parents who are certain their perfectly healthy child suddenly developed signs of autism within 24 hours of receiving the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine.
If you’re a parent to a young child as I am, the emotions hit hard. If you know families with severely autistic children, you have witnessed their struggle. If you’re an epidemiologist, as I am, you also remember the first lesson of Epidemiology 101: “Correlation does not equal causation.”
What the producers don’t show are the distraught parents of a seven-week-old baby with a collapsed lung fighting for her life due to a pertussis infection, also known as whooping cough. The infant in question was too young to receive her first dose of the pertussis vaccine but was exposed by another family member who was not immunized. Months of hospitalization and overwhelming terror could have been prevented if the other family members had received the vaccine.
The film relies heavily on Wakefield’s thoroughly debunked 1998 study, which indicates a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. Years of research by independent scientists in multiple countries failed to replicate his results. In 2010, after evidence of false data and conflicts of interest came to light, The Lancet, the British medical journal that published the study, retracted the paper. His co-authors had already withdrawn their support. Ultimately, he was barred from practicing medicine for abuse and dishonesty while falsifying data.
That hasn’t stopped the anti-vaccine community from rallying around him as a tragic hero of their cause.
Like any good conspiracy film, there must be an evil government agency out to dupe the public and a whistleblower to “tell the truth.”
A Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study confirmed no causal link between autism and the MMR vaccine. The producers claim the CDC covered up data showing a significant relative risk for autism in African-American children who had been vaccinated with MMR. Brian Hooker, a biochemical engineer and father to an autistic son re-analyzed the dataset, allegedly finding a link. However, the validity of a statistical analysis depends on choosing the correct study design for the type of data collected and using the appropriate statistical tests. He did neither, and instead manipulated the data to get the result he wanted, thus invalidating his results. His paper has since been retracted by the journal, Translational Neurodegeneration.
Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist Doreen Granpeesheh blames the sudden rise in autism diagnoses in the 1990s on the MMR vaccine. Throughout the film, participants mentioned that “autism was non-existent in the past” or that we went from “one in 10,000 to one in 250.”
So of course, it must be related. Right?
The second lesson you learn as an epidemiology student, is that when you have a sudden spike in the case number of diseases, you first determine if there’s reporting bias.
Autism was “non-existent” because it hadn’t been clearly defined. The term was first used in 1911 by a Swiss psychiatrist to describe a type of schizophrenia. In the 1940s, American doctors started to use it to describe children with certain anti-social behaviors. Finally, in the 1960s and 70s, medical professionals began to see autism as distinct from schizophrenia.
In 1991, the U.S. government required schools to provide special services to children diagnosed with autism. The need to clearly define those eligible meant enhanced evaluation and increased diagnoses. Asperger’s Syndrome, a more mild form of Autism, was added to the diagnosis in 1994, acknowledging a “spectrum.” Suddenly there were many more cases of children with autism spectrum disorder in the U.S. and U.K.
In the past, children with severe autism were generally labeled mentally disabled, often sent to special hospitals, and not integrated into the family or community (remember the 1988 film Rain Man?). Children on the more functioning end of the spectrum, often highly intelligent, were simply labeled as “quirky” or “socially awkward.”
Autism has always been here, but as I wrote in a Rivard Report article last year, improved diagnostics have meant an increase in the number of cases since the 1990s. If autism was related to MMR, which was introduced in 1971, we would have started to see a spike in cases in the 1970s, not 25 years later.
To bolster support for its disproven theory, the film brings out Luc Montagnier, a Nobel Prize laureate for his work on HIV. Surely a Nobel laureate can’t be wrong. What they don’t tell you is that despite his past successes, the scientific community has distanced itself from Montagnier. Now in his 80s, he has proposed off-the-wall, non-scientifically sound theories. No peer-reviewed journal will publish his work, so he’s taken to publishing himself.
Scientific research relies on novel, sometimes ground-breaking theories to advance knowledge. Peer-reviewed journals don’t shy away from printing controversial or shocking research. That research, though, must stand up to peer scrutiny. It must be replicable. It must be based in sound scientific principles.
Wakefield’s initial investigations were warranted – he had a question, he studied it. But not only did he have a poor study design that would not hold up to scrutiny, he falsified his data to prove his theory.
By refusing to give up this disproven theory, the autism community suffers. More research is needed to understand the actual causes of autism and improved treatment. The families living with autism deserve better.
The slick movie is enough to scare even those of us who know the scientific data. It’s well done. It plays on our fears as parents. But when public officials base their decisions on false information, the consequences can be damaging.
In the end we all want the same thing, to protect our children from illness. It’s because we understand that data, that the public health community will continue its critically important work to protect the entire population from vaccine-preventable diseases through better immunization coverage.
Cherise Rohr-Allegrini, who regularly writes about medicine and health for the Rivard Report, has written this op-ed in her capacity as a member of The Immunization Partnership.
Top image: A medical technician with the Wiesbaden Army Health Clinic prepares a vaccine shot. Photo by Carol E. Davis courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.