Notoriety alone can be a powerful selling point for any product, and it certainly seems to have benefited this documentary, which under other circumstances might have gone largely unnoticed. “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” a jeremiad of sorts against the compulsory vaccination of young children, complete with charges of collusion between Big Pharma and the Centers for Disease Control, was initially slated for inclusion in the Tribeca Film Festival, but protests led to its being removed from the schedule. Its supporters condemned that as a violation of free speech, and now a distributor is releasing it into a few theatres in hopes that the controversy will draw an audience. Availability in home formats is doubtlessly around the corner.
The film is by no means a “fair and balanced” consideration of the subject, to use a phrase that’s become something of a joke itself. That should be clear from the fact that its co-writer, director and chief talking-head interviewee is Andrew Wakefield, the British gastroenterologist who can be said to have started the entire anti-vaccine movement with an article he published in the journal The Lancet in 1998. On the basis of data he’d analyzed from actual cases, he and his collaborators detected a correlation between administration of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine to young children and increased incidence of autism in the recipients. The study was attacked as junk science and the journal eventually retracted it; Wakefield himself would ultimately be stripped of his medical license as a result. But the issues raised in the now-discredited article have hardly gone away, instead becoming the basis for an anti-vaccination movement among parents that in some areas has become a significant, very vocal minority in the population.
“Vaxxed” serves not only as a justification of that movement but as an apologia for Wakefield himself. As he presents the history, the original article was couched in very careful terms, and targeted only the MMR vaccine, rather than those for each of the diseases individually. Pharmaceutical companies, however, were phasing out the others and pushing the MMR form, and, in consequence, targeted him in collusion with the medical establishment. That included the CDC, which, the film argues, actually manipulated its own studies to argue in favor of the safety of the MMR vaccine and characterize Wakefield—and those who followed his anti-vaccine line—as anti-science zealots.
The film aims to prove that conspiratorial charge through interviews with Brian Hooker, a biologist with an autistic child who was contacted by William Thompson, a CDC researcher and whistleblower who alleged that his colleagues had deliberately falsified data in order to support the orthodox view (and, it’s suggested, help CDC workers to secure lucrative corporate positions after departing the agency). Thompson does not appear on camera but only in telephone conversations secretly recorded by Hooker, but if the recordings can be authenticated they certainly are significant—as would be Thompson’s direct testimony, promoted by some politicians, if the immunity from prosecution that he supposedly demands were provided. (It wouldn’t hurt if he could be questioned under oath, either.)
“Vaxxed” certainly raises some provocative issues. The cause behind the epidemic of autism should be objectively investigated. The scientific procedures involved in assessing the safety of vaccines should be strengthened, and laws protecting drug companies from lawsuits involving the possible ill-effects of vaccines should be reconsidered. On the other hand, the film is almost absurdly one-sided. Proponents of the orthodox view—when they’re included at all—are treated with almost contemptuous dismissal, and the motives of those who disagree with Wakefield are routinely assumed to be sinister, or at least misguided. And the notion that outbreaks of measles, for example, are hyped in the media in order to label parents who resist vaccinating their children as kooks certainly overlooks the danger that unvaccinated children can pose to their classmates and friends.
Nonetheless the most persuasive part of the film is that which plays to the heart rather than the head. The testimony of parents whose children have suffered autism after receiving vaccinations is inevitably wrenching, and seeing their sons and daughters struggling with their condition is undoubtedly moving. Wakefield takes even this part of the argument into doubtful territory, however, when he inserts what amount to commercials featuring kids mouthing the view that vaccines are dangerous, especially as they’re currently used.
So long as one understands it to be a one-sided polemic, “Vaxxed” could serve a useful function in encouraging rational discussion of a serious health issue—autism. But if the history of this debate is any indication, that’s unlikely to happen, and it will merely confirm Wakefield’s followers in their views while vexing their detractors (if you’ll excuse the pun).