Movie Review: Vaxxed

Since posting about the controversy at the Tribeca Film Festival surrounding the screening of the movie Vaxxed, I hoped for the opportunity to see it.  Fortunately it came to our area for a one-week limited engagement, and my wife and saw it Monday night.

I start out by admitting that I want this movie to be good.  I’m a sympathetic viewer.  While I acknowledge the potentially great good that vaccines may have in the past done, may do currently, and hopefully will do in the future, I’m also skeptical anytime someone tries to ram a point of view down my throat.  The tremendous growth of autism in our culture is far more than just better diagnostics.  There must be a reason for what is truly an epidemic.  To rule any possible cause out of bounds immediately seems the height of foolishness if not arrogance, particularly when that cause is the injection of materials into a child’s body.  I am not anti-vaccination, but I am distrustful of a perfect storm of government mandates and for-profit pharmaceutical/bio-engineering interests.

As such, let me also point out that those who dismiss this movie as anti-vaccination are uninformed at best, malicious at worst.  This film is not anti-vaccination.  It states that repeatedly.  It deliberately limits the scope of discussion to a single  vaccination – the combined measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine.  It does not raise questions about these as separate vaccinations, but only when combined into a single shot.  It does point out the curious matter that the single vaccinations have been discontinued by the manufacturers, leaving parents the only options of doing without the vaccine or receiving only the combined form.  I find that worth investigating all on its own.

All that being said, I wasn’t as impressed as I’d hoped to be, and I wasn’t as convinced as I hoped to be, mostly because the film doesn’t clearly and simply lay out the data in a no-nonsense approach.  Rather, it spends the vast majority of time on what might be the logical fallacy of appeal to emotion.  Look at how these families and children are suffering, isn’t it awful?  Well of course it’s awful!  I paid to see the movie in the first place because I am very well aware of that suffering and how real and pervasive and long-term it is.  I’d go so far as to say anyone sitting in the theater to see this movie already knows that autism is a devastating condition.  How about focusing clearly and repeatedly on the actual point of the film?

And the alleged point of the film is to assert that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) manipulated and destroyed data for a 2004 study on a possible relationship between autism and the MMR vaccine.  As another curiosity, a search at the CDC website for “Vaxxed” returns nothing.  Apparently they don’t feel the need to address the issue raised by this film.  Interesting.

The film’s assertion centers on the release of data from a CDC insider, Dr. William Thompson.  The heart of the film ought to be the clear comparison of data between the official CDC report in 2004, and data purported to be untampered with that predates this report.  The movie alleges that – among other things – data was eliminated in order to eliminate any statistically significant relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism.  While the movie does talk about the data, it could have done a much better job of it.

Ultimately, the film should ensure that every person that walks out of the theater could explain it to others.  Unfortunately, I don’t feel that I can.  The film alleges that the CDC reduced the sampling population – the number of participants included in the report – in order to minimize any relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism.  I think there was more to it than that, but I’m not confident enough to explain it.  And for this reason alone, I think the film fails to do what it should have done.

Since Monday night, I’ve been searching out rebuttals to the film.  How are people arguing against what the film has to say?  It’s not hard to find articles and sites dedicated to this purpose.  Here’s a current Washington Post article on the matter.  It details seven things the film doesn’t say that it feels are important.  Two of them have to do with Andrew Wakefield and the discrediting of him personally that has occurred in the professional medical community.  One has to do with the film’s removal from the Tribeca Film Festival.   The article seems to think that this is a significant fact about the film that in some way discredits it.  Anybody who saw Robert de Niro’s interview on the Today Show will likely recognize that there were a lot of factors contributing to the film’s removal, none of them proof of or refutation the film’s premise.

But interestingly, this article – nor any of the other reading I’ve done – refutes the basic premise of the movie, which is that the CDC tampered with the data.  Most articles point to Wakefield’s discrediting, to questionable motives on his part, to editing choices in the film.  None of them (at least that I’ve found) refute the main allegation of CDC tampering.  And frankly, if you can’t refute that, then you haven’t refuted the film’s main purpose.  IF the CDC is guilty of tampering with data to favor a particular outcome, we have a very serious and very dangerous situation on our hands that needs to be thoroughly investigated and people held accountable.  IF the CDC can be shown to be not guilty of this, then the movie can be chucked out as mistaken at best,  malicious at worst.

The movie ends with several specific action items for viewers to follow through on.  The only one I remember is writing our congressional representatives to ask that Dr. William Thompson, the whistleblower, be formally deposed by Congress under oath, and that the same thing happen for five other key players at the CDC from the 2002-2004 timeframe.  This seems like a reasonable course of action.  A Senator has been provided with the documentation demonstrating the alteration of data, yet Congress has not moved to act on this.

I can’t understand why they wouldn’t.  If you’re going to have a movie out alarming people, the least you ought to be able to do is determine if the film’s main allegation is true – did the CDC alter/eliminate data to hide a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism rates?  Why would they not do this?  Can someone explain it to me?

So, that’s where I’m at currently.  Still investigating rebuttals, but so far there has been NO rebuttal of the film’s allegations of CDC misconduct.  That is the only issue at play, for me.  Only by determining if that is true, can we determine whether or not concerns about the MMR vaccine are valid or not.  Only by determining if the data has been manipulated can we know whether we can trust the CDC or not.  I’d like to think that we can, but a penchant for history and a lifetime fascination with human behavior both individually and collectively tells me that such a position is dangerous.



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