Vaxxed, the new “documentary” about the alleged connection between vaccines and autism, is directed by Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced doctor responsible for duping untold thousands of parents into believing vaccinations could give their children autism. This may not be news to anyone who’s followed the controversy surrounding the film’s abrupt removal from the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival schedule, but it needs to be stated up front, and before the end credits roll, just in case you’re unclear who’s behind this.
Autism is a misunderstood and sometimes terrifying disorder, often appearing in young children with no previous history of medical problems. Wakefield capitalized on this lack of clear cause when he published his now-discredited paper linking the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. Every major study conducted by reputable institutions has since failed to find a connection, yet Wakefield continues to flog this link in Vaxxed.
Wakefield knows the weight of opinion is against him, so rather than interview experts with opposing viewpoints, he and the Vaxxed team present the other side in the form of news clips with vaccine proponents both respectable (Surgeon General Vivek Murthy) and not so much (Penn Jillette).
Vaxxed asserts no less than that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) destroyed data in a 2004 study whose published results showed no link between autism and the MMR vaccine. Wakefield et al base this on the statements of one man, William Thompson, a former senior scientist with the CDC who was taped in conversations with environmental biologist Brian Hooker.
The crux of the entire movie — and understand, Thompson’s statements are here only because Hooker recorded him without his knowledge — is Thompson asserting that his fellow study authors threw certain documents away, thus invalidating the study.
And...that’s it. In the decades-long absence of supporting evidence for his MMR “hypothesis,” Wakefield and Hooker hinge the remnants of their argument on the word of a “whistleblower” who only ended up in that role when he was duped by Hooker. (Wakefield’s license was revoked in 2010.)
The film’s other key player is Del Bigtree, a medical journalist and host of the Dr. Phil–produced daytime show The Doctors, who, as you conveniently won’t learn until the credits roll, is also a producer of the film. Bigtree insists that parents with concerns about the vaccine were “written off” and that the CDC’s vaccine schedule is something Americans are “required to adhere to,” which is blatantly false.
The Booker, Wakefield and Bigtree segments are spliced with testimonials from parents describing their own ordeals with late-onset autism, which only points to another insidious aspect of Wakefield’s fraud. These interviews are heartbreaking. There may be few tragedies as great as a parent watching a child’s future rapidly contract. But it's another tragedy altogether to give these desperate mothers and fathers this straw at which to grasp.
We also get Wakefield backpedaling from the scaremongering he lost his medical license for. His intention was never to link the MMR vaccine to autism, you see; we just twisted his words. And then there’s Hooker, attempting to use the CDC’s data “the way it should have been,” something it's hard to imagine a person with no experience in pathology managing to accomplish.
The film enters non-manipulative territory in the last 15 minutes, when Vaxxed discusses the “vaccine court” (the Office of Special Masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims), which adjudicates vaccine lawsuits. Here, finally, is a chance to address the serious issue of Big Pharma’s influence on the government. But you can only cry wolf so many times, and be debunked by legitimate scientific entities for so long, before no one takes you seriously. Vaxxed is, in the words of Sheriff Bart, the last act of a desperate man. It’s Andrew Wakefield’s Hail Mary, thrown — I hope — as his time in the public arena finally runs out.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.