I have followed with frustration and sadness the response to the film Vaxxed which has been showing at the David Minor Theater in Eugene. The film inaccurately represents the science of vaccines and autism, and I worry that it may mislead parents in Lane County.
I am a mother to two young children, and I feel the weight of responsibility to make wise decisions about their healthcare. I am also trained as a scientist, and I’ve found that my background in the scientific process has been a valuable tool in helping me to make smart choices for my family.
I do not want to dwell too much on the problems with Vaxxed, but it does make for a useful example of how to assess the accuracy of health information.
For example, when presented with new information, it’s smart to think carefully about the source. Is the narrator of this information trustworthy? Is he or she well trained with expertise in this area? Are there conflicts of interest that may compromise the honesty of the source?
The director of Vaxxed is Andrew Wakefield, and his history is full of red flags that should make us skeptical of his trustworthiness. In 1998, he published a small study of just 12 children that attempted to link the development of autism to vaccines. But investigations into Wakefield’s research uncovered a number of problems, and his paper was retracted from the medical journal. He had fabricated data and conducted invasive research procedures on children without their parents’ consent.
Wakefield was also on the payroll of a law firm planning to sue vaccine manufacturers, which was a gross conflict of interest. In hearings with the U.K. General Medical Council, Wakefield was called “callous” and “unethical,” and he was subsequently banned from medical practice. I do not recommend trusting this man to give you advice about the health of your children, whether packaged as a slick documentary or in any other form.
When assessing health information, we should also be wary of conspiracy theories. Viewers of Vaxxed may be intrigued by the tale it weaves of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cover-up. Ignoring for a moment Wakefield’s lack of trustworthiness, a closer look at this story shows no evidence of a cover-up at the CDC. It did not destroy data, and it did not lie about its research results. Wakefield dishonestly spliced together sound bites and scary images of syringes (much larger than any you’ll see used to administer vaccines, of course) to convince viewers of his version of the tale. And while you may find a handful of celebrities and politicians voicing support for the film, they are not trained in immunology or infectious diseases, and they also are not trustworthy sources of health information.
Instead of listening to celebrities and conspiracy theorists, let’s stick to the science. Many studies, conducted by scientists around the world (not just at the CDC) and including millions of children, have concluded that there is no relationship between autism and vaccines. Research suggests that autism is a genetic disorder that begins before birth, before our kids get any shots. The real tragedy is the vast amounts of time and money wasted studying this thoroughly debunked claim. It’s time to put those resources towards research and services to improve the lives of autistic people and their families.
Vaccines are thoroughly tested before they are approved for use, and their safety is continuously monitored. Vaccinating your kids on time keeps them safe from diseases that can cause pain, suffering and death. It also strengthens the immunity of our entire community, reducing our risk of outbreaks of preventable diseases and protecting our most vulnerable citizens — newborn babies and those with compromised immune systems such as cancer patients. On this, every major medical organization and the vast majority of scientists and medical professionals agree without hesitation.
Who can we trust to give us accurate information if we have questions about vaccines? A great place to start is with one of the wonderful pediatricians practicing in our county, folks with years of medical training who care deeply about our children and our community. If you want another perspective, don’t look for it at the movies. Save movie night for entertainment value, and look to trusted, evidence-based sources for health information for your family. — Alice Callahan, Ph.D.