I looked at the data that the CDC whistleblower was providing to Andy and Brian and it is the most compelling evidence of fraud I have ever seen in my life. I realized in that moment that I was looking at probably the biggest story of my lifetime. As a journalist, I realized it was a story I had to tell. – Del Bigtree, Producer of Vaxxed from Cover-Up to Catastrophe
Practically from the opening scene, the film Vaxxed grabs our attention and doesn’t let go until it has elicited every ounce of empathy and outrage the human heart is capable of. Back in 2013, William Thompson, PhD, a senior scientist at the CDC was so wracked with guilt about his participation in a CDC study on the timing of the MMR vaccine and autism that he finally picked up the phone and called Brian Hooker, PhD, biologist and autism dad, to tell him where to look for the evidence of CDC deception. Vaxxed is the story of what followed, revealing evidence of collusion, corruption, and fraud at the very agency charged with protecting the public health.
The film was accepted by and then unceremoniously ejected from the Tribeca Film Festival after a firestorm of media attention which almost unanimously condemned the film even though not a single reporter had seen it. The media attention may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, as it has many people who haven’t investigated the topic before asking, Why? What is so special about this film that so many people wanted to kill it? And so it was that the film opened last night to a packed house at Angelika Film Center in New York City. As a long-time New Yorker, there was a particular thrill to seeing this film at this theater. Angelika is my very favorite theater in New York. I have many vivid memories of terrific and thought-provoking films seen there, while surprisingly I have no clear recollection of any films screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who started his adult life as a research gastroenterologist studying Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis at the Royal Free Hospital in London, had his career destroyed by a case series he wrote with twelve other eminent gastroenterologists and researchers back in 1998 that suggested the possibility that the severe bowel disease they were seeing in children with autism might be associated with the measles virus found in their guts. Parents of eight of the twelve children in the series reported that their children had been developing normally or close to it until they received the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR). Scientific researchers look for patterns; they don’t spend their time and energy on random guesses out of the blue. If a researcher finds a pattern in what they’re seeing, that’s usually a good sign that there’s something there to investigate. Wakefield et al’s research was merely suggestive and didn’t draw any conclusions, but it clearly touched a nerve in some very powerful circles as this case series is used as a touchstone in virtually any argument involving vaccines and autism.
The fascinating thing to me is that the facts about this research are almost universally mischaracterized in the media to the point that we get comments from people all the time making wildly inaccurate statements like “that doctor was convicted of fraud and sent to jail!”, “Wakefield admitted he made it all up,” or “he performed dangerous and unnecessary procedures on children.” (Wakefield was not a clinician; he performed zero procedures on children, and the person who did perform most of these supposedly “unnecessary” medical procedures, Dr. John Walker-Smith, had his medical license reinstated when a judge reversed the previous GMC finding.) The whole thing would be comical if the effect of silencing debate and investigation were not having such a horrendous impact on so many children’s health.
Dr. Wakefield had already turned his efforts toward documentary filmmaking (a previous effort, Who Killed Alex Spourdalakis?, is among the most affecting and thought-provoking films I have ever seen) when Dr. Hooker called him and told him what Dr. Thompson was saying. Dr. Wakefield encouraged Dr. Hooker to record the conversations without Dr. Thompson’s knowledge to ensure that there was a record of his statements in case something happened to Dr. Thompson to make him change his mind. This was totally legal as both Dr. Thompson and Dr. Hooker were in states where one-party consent is all that is required for recording. Dr. Hooker re-analyzed the data that he obtained at Dr. Thompson’s suggestion, and it was damning. The re-analysis was peer-reviewed and published in Translational Neurodegeneration in August of 2014, then later retracted when the journal received a barrage of attacks similar to what happened to the Tribeca Film Festival.
Prior to beginning the original study, there was a six-month research plan written up. The research plan was intended to make the study unassailable, unlike the CDC’s Verstraeten Thimerosal study which was riddled with problems from the outset (explained beautifully in Trace Amounts, another documentary that came out last year). But, again, researchers ran into trouble right away. When they crunched the numbers, they found two very strong associations between the timing of MMR and autism. In African-American boys, autism was 3.4 times as common in children who had received the MMR before 36 months of age than it was in children who were given the vaccine after they turned three. In addition, children who had been developing normally for the first twelve months of life and later developed autism were more than seven times as likely to have had MMR before the age of three as at later time. As Dr. Wakefield rightly points out in the film, all the children in the study were given the MMR – it was only the timing that varied – and the effects were quite strong. How strong would the effect have been if they had compared children who had the vaccine before 18 months (as is recommended by the CDC in order to be “on time”) with children who had never received the vaccine at all?
But no one knows because the CDC didn’t publish the data. Instead of publishing what they found and doing the follow-on studies that should have been performed, they set about systematically getting rid of the strong signals they had found. Instead of following the unassailable research plan, they figured out a way to plausibly dump 40% of the data by requiring Georgia birth certificates. This reduced the amplitude of the signal itself as well as the statistical power of the study, meaning that whatever signal they did find could be explained away as “not statistically significant.” Not only did they discard the data for the purposes of publication, however, they literally threw the data away. Fortunately, Dr. Thompson, realizing that this was at best unethical and at worst illegal, kept copies of all the data.
This study was eventually published in 2004, four years after it began, and it was immediately taken to the Institute of Medicine, a supposedly independent organization, who used this study to recommend that no more investigation be done on the subject. At the time, the study was referenced in virtually every media outlet as “proof” that “vaccines don’t cause autism.” (Though any scientist worth their salt would know it was nothing of the kind even if it weren’t fraudulent.) Thompson rightfully complained to Dr. Hooker in 2013 that we had already lost 10 years of research because of the CDC’s paralysis around anything related to autism and vaccines. If that’s not enough to make your blood boil, you haven’t been paying attention.
At the beginning of 2009, five years after this study and the Verstraeten study were published, Julie Gerberding left her job as Director of the CDC to take a lucrative position at Merck, the maker of the MMR, running their vaccine division. It’s not hard to see that Merck was quite pleased with the work she did for them.
As a bystander who has watched closely as all the events in the film were taking place, I have been indignant at the wholesale ignoring of the evidence that our children have been sold down the river by powerful and cynical collusion between CDC and corporate interests. Del Bigtree, as a producer of The Doctors, an influential medical program that often received information from the CDC, couldn’t chase the story down himself when it broke, but as a journalist with a nose for a good story, he assumed that within two weeks it would break in every major news outlet. Not only did that not happen, no major news outlet has ever brought up the subject without the obvious agenda of “debunking” the story. (As a matter of fact, my fellow Thinking Mom L.J. Goes and myself are among the very few people who have ever been able to comment on the controversy on mainstream television.) This should have been Pulitzer-Prize-winning material, and yet no one was touching it. That was when Bigtree realized that all of television (and indeed the print media as well) is controlled by pharmaceutical advertising dollars.
It is clear, both here and in the U.K., that what the respective health agencies are protecting is not children’s health, but their vaccine programs. The “collateral damage” of this policy, the broken lives of previously healthy children, is poignantly portrayed in the film by interviews with parents of affected children like Polly Tommey, another of the film’s producers, and Dr. Hooker.
I know many of the people involved in the making of the film, but one of the most potent testimonies came from a mother I don’t know. Shirley Ealey brought her African-American boy-and-girl twins to a well-baby visit where a nurse lined up three shots each, including the MMR. When her daughter reacted by screaming, Ealey was distracted and didn’t notice that the nurse accidentally gave four of the shots to her son. Ealey asked where the missing shot had gone, whereupon the nurse realized she had given Ealey’s son a double dose of the MMR. Ealey was so upset that she whisked her children out of the office without letting her daughter get the remaining vaccines. At the time of the filming, Ealey’s twins were 19 years old. While her daughter speaks three languages, plays classical piano, and is an honor student, her son sits next to her on the couch happily watching Blue’s Clues on his iPad. Ealey’s tears as she contemplates the the stark contrasts in her twins’ development and what her son lost forever at that well-baby visit will haunt me for the rest of my life.
Perhaps my favorite part of the film is when Bigtree goes back to some of his old colleagues from The Doctors, where he worked for seven years before leaving to help make this film. Bigtree presents the documents to family medicine practitioner Dr. Rachael Ross and pediatrician Dr. Jim Sears, who are both cheerfully and confidently “pro-vaccine” (as always, I find myself irritated by the ridiculous premise that attitudes around a nuanced subject like vaccines can be reduced to the binary states of “pro-vaccine” and “anti-vaccine”) before reading them and both visibly shaken by what they have read afterward. When Bigtree asks what Dr. Ross would say to the next parent who comes into her office asking about the MMR, she says she would tell the truth. She will not be giving it her own children (Dr. Ross had a baby girl in November of 2015), and she worries about what we are doing to children’s brains.
Indeed. She is by no means alone in that.
I recently watched the movie Spotlight about how journalists at the Boston Globe uncovered the tremendously damaging way that the Catholic church was handling sexual abuse charges against their priests. The journalists were blocked time and again by people willing to collude with the church in denying what they clearly knew was happening, but that just made the journalists more determined than ever to get to the truth. They were finally able to publish enough of the truth that they made it impossible for the Catholic church to continue institutional policies that allowed children’s lives to be destroyed.
Because of the current stranglehold that pharmaceutical dollars have on mainstream media, this story is even harder to get out. Just as in that situation, a powerful interest group is working day and night to suppress the facts — they know children’s lives are being destroyed by their policies and they just don’t care. Fortunately, the filmmakers of Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe know that, in this era of increased communication and transparency, mainstream media censorship can only postpone the truth getting out, not prevent it. So they threw their hearts, minds, and souls into this film as a way of circumventing that censorship. And they did a damned fine job of telling a difficult story that needs to be told.
Now it’s your turn to do what you can to get the message out there. See the film. Share information about it on Facebook and Twitter. Encourage everyone you know to see it — especially if they are not already familiar with the facts. Just like the journalists at the Boston Globe did, let’s make it impossible for this powerful organization to continue those policies that are sacrificing children’s lives to some bizarre conception of the Greater Good.