“I would strongly encourage everybody- look at the science, look at the facts, CDC, the Center for Disease Control can give you good information. Get your children vaccinated.”
-President Barack Obama
For the last 20 years the debate surrounding the safety of vaccinations has become increasingly inflamed despite the general consensus among medical professionals and scientists in the US and around the globe that vaccines are safe and effective for nearly all children. Much of the fervor in the vaccine skeptics camp can be attributed to their fear that vaccines can cause autism, and this idea can be traced back to Andrew Wakefield and company’s 1998 case study entitled “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children.” Published in The Lancet, the study “suggested that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine may predispose to behavioral regression and pervasive developmental disorder in children,” i.e. autism (Rao and Chittaranjan). Since then, multiple epidemiological studies have disproved Wakefield et al.’s findings and failed to establish any causal link between receiving the MMR vaccine and later being diagnosed with autism. What’s more is that The Lancet retracted the Wakefield study and Wakefield himself lost his medical license due to fraudulent behavior in producing that study. In spite of all this, Andrew Wakefield continues to be a leading voice for the anti-vaccinationist movement, and one of his greatest accomplishments in advancing that ideology has come in the form of a documentary.
The 2016 film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, directed by Wakefield, is self-purportedly about how a “Senior Scientist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. William Thompson, confessed that the CDC had omitted crucial data in their final report that revealed a causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism,” (“About”). However, the film also spends a lot of time focusing on the correlation between autism and the MMR vaccine. For this reason, the film is likely most well-received by those who hold anti-vaccinationist beliefs, though its obvious intent of persuasion implies that it is meant for a wider parental audience. I, like most people, value the wellbeing of children, and since this film claims to expose damage done to thousands of kids while potentially putting thousands more at risk of preventable diseases, I think it is worth to put this film under microscope. From an analytical point of view, the film’s argument can be broken up into three key elements: correlating autism and the MMR vaccine, building a case against the CDC, and promoting the conclusions of a reanalysis of Dr. Thompson’s original CDC data. By itself as a single perspective, Vaxxed can be convincing as it contains appeals grounded in emotion, reason, and credibility that, on the surface, seem effective. However, examining the film while considering other points of view in the broader context of the anti-vaccination controversy and breaking down the modes of persuasion utilized in Vaxxed, it becomes clear that the arguments presented are woefully inadequate in supporting the underlying thesis that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism.
While much of the film’s argument relies on discrediting the CDC and offering an alternative to its information, a significant portion of the film is devoted to anecdotes and interviews whose subject matters are unrelated to the alleged fraudulent 2004 CDC study that is supposedly the film’s focus. Instead, these parts of the film try to instill the idea that MMR is causally related to autism. Among these are the heart-wrenching stories of parents of autistic children, all of which essentially say that their children were never the same after receiving the MMR vaccine. Around 6 minutes into the film, Polly Tommey claims that the day of his 2nd MMR dose, her son had begun to exhibit a decline in motor function and verbal communication. Similarly, at the film’s half-hour mark, Sheila Ealey states that the day after her son received his MMR, he was “staring around in space as if paralyzed… not like the normal smiling baby, excited for me to get him out of bed.” Instances like this are meant to build the illusion of a connecting correlation: both women, along with literally every other parent of an autistic child featured in Vaxxed blame their children’s condition on vaccines. This sentiment is well-reflected in the period from 55:00-57:00. This section begins with a horrifying homevideo of a mother holding her seizing baby before moving on to show other mothers and fathers claiming that their young children started having seizures or autistic behaviors “after having [their] vaccines” (notice that the MMR vaccine is not singled out). The section ends with a montage of people asserting that “vaccines can and do cause autism,” the final woman frantically stating this through passionate tears. This part of the film best exemplifies its strategy in applying emotional appeals: it softens up the viewers’ logical defenses with depressing stories and negative images before bombarding them with information that the film producers want people to believe. By simply repeating the phrase “vaccines cause autism,” it is more likely that less knowledgeable viewers will internalize that idea and subconsciously incorporate anti-vax suspicion into their point of view. The emotionally-driven interviews and stories of parents in the film clearly are not present to inform the audience of anything, but to brainwash them into thinking that vaccines cause autism.
As expected due to the movie description, much of the film is centered on the information that Dr. Thompson shared with Dr. Brian Hooker and what Hooker found upon investigating and “reanalyzing” that information. Before even looking at what was exchanged, it is important to examine how Thompson is used in Vaxxed. He is not actually in the film. At least not willingly. As Hooker describes, they had hours and hours of discussion on the phone that he had recorded without Thompson’s knowledge; and it is through this audio, shared by Hooker, that the CDC scientist’s information is presented. This fact is odd and does no favors for the film’s credibility, nor does Thompson’s “statement released through his attorneys… ‘I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits’” (Park). Nonetheless, Thompson is used in the film to support an agenda that he has publicly disagreed with. For example, Hooker states ~5:15 that “for years [he] had been trying to crack this edifice of the CDC and just getting little glimpses of what wasn’t right.” This statement is immediately followed by a Thompson clip: “the CDC has put the research 10 years behind. Because the CDC has not been transparent, we have missed 10 years of research because the CDC is so paralyzed right now by anything relating to autism.” Since neither statement is very concrete, it is not entirely clear how what Thompson says is related to what Hooker says, but they sound ominous and are disparaging to the CDC and therefore contribute to the film’s message. Like the above example, nearly all instances of Thompson’s audio are very short and follow loosely after several minutes of Hooker talking. Considering that there were hours of Thompson’s audio that could have been put in the film, yet only sixteen 5-20 second, vaguely relevant quotes were dispersed throughout the movie, it seems apparent that most of Thompson’s information was unimportant and cherrypicked in favor of the film’s message.
The one aspect of the film where what Hooker and Thompson say are clearly supportive of one another is what the film calls, “The African American Effect.” At about 37:17, Thompson stated that “what [the data] was suggesting is that among the blacks, the ones that were getting vaccinated earlier were more likely to have autism.” Hooker echoes this idea ~39:30, claiming that “when [he] looked at African American males only, the relative risk was 3.36” times more than normal. Hooker was able to publish this finding in a 2014 paper entitled “Measles-mumps-rubella vaccination timing and autism among young African-American boys: a reanalysis of CDC data.” This is a fact that Hooker is sure to share with the audience in Vaxxed since it yields itself to discrediting the original DeStefano et al. study at CDC. This is crucial because discrediting the CDC makes the views put forth by Vaxxed more appealing. The filmmakers were also wise in their failure to mention that the journal in which Hooker’s paper was published, Translational Neurodegeneration, retracted the article, stating that “post-publication peer review raised concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis, therefore the Editors no longer have confidence in the soundness of the findings,” (Retraction Note). Thus, the only real evidence supporting a connection between autism and the MMR vaccine has itself, been discredited. Ironically, even if Hooker’s findings were reliable, they would contradict much of what the film emphasizes since most of the “victims” presented in the film are white. Regardless of any validity in Hooker’s reanalysis of Thompson’s original data- which there likely isn’t any- the ideas put forth in Vaxxed are plainly unsupported by anything scientific.
By now it is clear that the film’s message is predicated on fallacy and misrepresentation of evidence. Seen for what it really is, Vaxxed is a grand attempt in equivocating correlation to causality and backing it up with “expert” testimonies and studies that have been denounced by the professional communities in medicine and epidemiology. Parents everywhere who see this movie will likely question the safety of MMR or vaccines in general where their children are concerned. It is imperative that they do not let this one dishonest source of information lead them to endanger their children. Echoing the sentiment of nearly all professionals in relevant medical, biological, and public health fields, concerned parents should look at the vast body of evidence assuring the safety of vaccines and “get their children vaccinated.”
“About.” Vaxxed, 2016, vaxxedthemovie.com/about/.
Park, Alice. “Whistleblower Claims CDC Covered Up Data Showing Vaccine-Autism Link.” Time.Com, Sept. 2014, p. 1. EBSCOhost, chaffey.idm.oclc.org/loginurl=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspxdirect=true&db=a9h&AN=97939884&site=ehost-live.
Rao, T. S. Sathyanarayana, and Chittaranjan Andrade. “The MMR Vaccine and Autism:Sensation, Refutation, Retraction, and Fraud.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry 53.2 (2011): 95–96. PMC. Web. 12 Oct. 2018.
“Retraction Note: Measles-Mumps-Rubella Vaccination Timing and Autism among Young African American Boys: a Reanalysis of CDC Data.” Translational Neurodegeneration, BioMed Central, 3 Oct. 2014, translationalneurodegeneration.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/2047-9158-3-22.