A story in the New York Times this past week is about a new documentary film that was originally going to be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival next month. When I first read the piece, I was mad. Turns out I wasn’t the only one. After others complained, the film was pulled from the schedule. Let’s review what happened, and why this is important.
The background is that the film is about the anti-vaccine movement, produced by the doctor who originally wrote papers on the subject many years ago. Thanks to the actions from the festival, Andrew Wakefield is now more infamous on the topic. His paper was initially published in the British medical journal The Lancet and later retracted. But that hasn’t stopped him, and his latest action was to turn to being a filmmaker.
The issue that I see is that the anti-vaxxers, as they are known, is a dangerous group. By refusing to vaccinate their kids, they are putting their lives and their children’s at tremendous risk. “Part of the problem is that our parents have seen polio,” as my friend Dr. Patricia Boiko told me after she read the Times story. Boiko has both an MD and an MPH and is also a documentary filmmaker, so she can speak to several aspects here. By the way, Tribeca rejected one of her films, but let’s talk about the public health aspects of the anti-vaxxers.
My dad actually had a light case of polio when he was a child. And back then, when the vaccines were first introduced, you didn’t have any choice: “We were lined up in school and given the shots. There wasn’t any parental consent, there was such a push to vaccinate everyone back then,” Boiko said. Since the 1950’s, the vaccines have been tremendously effective, and now it is rare to know someone who has contracted any of these diseases.
As a working clinician, she sees numerous kids who haven’t been vaccinated. “It is scary that people aren’t vaccinating their children against Rubella (German Measles). They are correct that children who get Rubella usually do fine. However, if they become pregnant and get Rubella before they even know they are pregnant, their child can be born with deafness, blindness and severe heart problems. I have seen cases of measles with encephalitis that causes brain damage as severe as autism. We saw children in Cambodian refugee camps die from measles. This is why I am especially fond of the MMR (Mumps, Measles and Rubella) vaccine because I hate the associated diseases. Plus, three vaccines in one – what more can you ask for? You can bet that my own kids were immunized against everything.” These days, kids get more than a dozen shots in their first year.
Part of the reason why the anti-vaxxers have taken hold is that “Autism is such a horrible disease, and every parents’ fear that their child may contract this. I get why these parents want to do anything for their kids, and why they don’t vaccinate. We certainly don’t know what causes autism,” she told me.
But as the population of non-vaccinated kids increases – especially in the States and other countries where these diseases have been almost eradicated – the consequences are dire. Disneyland had an outbreak of measles, and now some schools are allowing non-vaccinated kids to attend kindergarten. And if parents travel overseas to countries that don’t have universal vaccinations they could put their kids at further risk.
So that is the science and the medicine. Now what about the film itself? Boiko agrees with numerous other doctors that Wakefield has been so discredited. “Parents are going to get burned if they buy into his propaganda. But there could be some good to come out of all the attention with this film,” she says. “It could spark some interest in autism research. Initially scheduling the film didn’t surprise me as a physician, but it made me mad as a filmmaker. I’m talking to you, DeNiro!” she says.
Apparently she wasn’t the only one. Another documentary filmmaker quoted in the second Times article called the Wakefield film a fraud and “described it as a momentous and significant moment for documentary film making.” Still, I am glad the movie isn’t part of the festival, and maybe now we can focus on the science.