The controversy over “Vaxxed,” a new anti-vaccine movie that was to be screened at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, began last week when it was announced that the film had received a spot at the festival and that its controversial director Andrew Wakefield would be in attendance. The backlash from this announcement was almost immediate, with the scientific community voicing widespread disapproval via social media. The scientific community and others were glad to hear Saturday that the film was pulled from the lineup following the controversial conversation surrounding the film.
For those unfamiliar, Wakefield is a discredited researcher who in the 1990s published a study that claimed to link autism to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Not only has that study been retracted, but Wakefield had his medical license revoked. Subsequent studies have failed to show a scientific link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Though Wakefield’s research has been invalidated, the anti-vaccine movement still cites his study and asserts that the government knowingly allows the continued use of vaccines. This message has been promoted by a variety of groups over the years and has undoubtably hindered the government’s efforts to vaccinate all children against certain diseases.
Outrage only grew when it was revealed that Robert De Niro, a co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival and famed actor, was the one behind getting “Vaxxed” a spot in the event. De Niro said Friday that he wanted the film to be screened to open up a discussion about the causes of autism and referred to his son Elliot, who has autism.
Though some controversial films have debuted at film festivals in the past — “Blackfish” often comes to mind — it is rare for activist films to be produced by those who lead activist movements, like Wakefield. It is rarer still for a co-founder of a film festival to publicly state that he had openly influenced the selection process because of personal circumstances.
Though Tribeca organizers echoed De Niro in saying that the festival only wanted to start a conversation about tough issues and were not necessarily taking a stand on the vaccine issue, those online, including myself, were unconvinced. Giving a film like “Vaxxed” a spot at an important film festival and not scheduling a film from the opposite side of the argument is tantamount to endorsing Wakefield and his poor science. It is not an open discussion if the only viewpoint presented is by a disbarred doctor who has been so thoroughly discredited.
For this reason, I was glad to read that Tribeca had decided to pull the movie from its lineup. It simply would have brought too much attention to a line of thought that has been proven wrong, and the public health implications of such an action would have been profound. As the United States found out last summer, anti-vaccine movements have the potential to cause serious disease outbreaks and significant harm to the public at large. A screening would have added fuel to the already growing anti-vaccine fire. At a time when public health officials are urging parents more than ever to get their children vaccinated, there was no place for Tribeca to undermine this important public health program.