UPDATE: Robert De Niro, co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, announced Saturday they would no longer screen Andrew Wakefield’s film. De Niro said in a statement that after reviewing the film with the festival organizers, as well as members of the scientific community, “we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.” Just one day earlier, De Niro had defended the decision to include the film in the festival.
The original story continues below.
Andrew Wakefield is back in the news, thanks to a new, controversial documentary set to premiere at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
The film, directed by Wakefield himself, claims that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention orchestrated a conspiracy to cover up the “true” reason for America’s rising autism diagnosis rates: vaccines.
This is a widely and soundly discredited assertion. Studies from the independent, non-profit Institute of Medicine, the World Health Organization and the CDC have all found that there is no link between receiving vaccines and developing autism spectrum disorder. Instead, what these studies demonstrate is that vaccines are overwhelmingly safe, with very rare cases of side effects, and that they protect children from dangerous and preventable diseases.
We’ve asked the CDC to comment on the film and its so-called “whistleblower,” and will update this story if they respond. But for people who happen to stumble upon the film’s trailer and feel briefly scared and disoriented ― dramatic music, sinister cartoons and emotional clips of children with autism will do that to you ― we’ve put together a handy guide to remind everyone what Wakefield did, and why he doesn’t deserve anybody’s trust now.
Who is Andrew Wakefield?
Andrew Wakefield is a disgraced former doctor who believes that standard childhood vaccinations can cause autism, despite a slew of large, well-designed and authoritative studies that prove there’s no evidence for the link.
Why does he think this?
Wakefield published his first research paper on the supposed relationship between vaccinations and autism in 1998. It documented changes in 12 children who were said to have previously been normal but lost acquired skills, like language. They had also begun experiencing diarrhea and abdominal pain.
Parents for eight out of the 12 children said this developmental regression began after they got the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination, known as MMR. The study said the onset of symptoms started between one and 14 days after the shot, and also claimed that nine of the children were diagnosed with autism.
Wakefield hypothesized that these children could be suffering from a syndrome that combined gastrointestinal problems with autism, and that it could be linked to the MMR vaccine. And in talking about his findings with the press, Wakefield said that he could no longer support giving children the MMR vaccine.
How did people react to Wakefield’s study?
The study was tiny, there was no control group, and Wakefield acknowledged in his paper that he could not prove a causal link between vaccines and autism, despite using more decisive language when speaking about the issue outside of the study.
But the paper ignited a storm of controversy over whether or not vaccines can cause autism, and potentially influenced thousands of parents to not vaccinate their children against deadly, preventable diseases for fear of triggering autistic symptoms.
In a 2010 article, Time magazine noted that vaccination rates in some parts of the U.K. fell from over 90 percent in the mid 1990s to below 70 percent by 2003. Unsurprisingly, the drop in vaccinations coincided with a sharp increase in measles.
In the U.S., Wakefield’s legacy of vaccine suspicion continues. Traces can be seen in the 2015 multi-state measles outbreak and the whooping cough resurgence in 2012, which are both linked to vaccine refusal.
While the vast majority of Americans do vaccinate their children, it only takes a few people to incubate an infection and spread it to others who either refuse to get the shot or who can’t receive the shot for medical reasons.
When did people start to question the study?
No credible studies have ever replicated Wakefield’s 1998 results. That’s probably because there turned out to be a lot of problems with Wakefield’s original data, little though there was.
After mounting controversy over the study, the Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal that published it, began investigating allegations of financial conflicts of interest and unethical research practices against Wakefield in 2004, prompting him to abandon his practice there. Among the allegations proven to be true are the fact that some children in the study were also participants in a lawsuit that claimed they were harmed by vaccines, and also that Wakefield was paid by the attorneys pursuing the lawsuit.
In the end, ten of the study’s 13 original authors ― but not Wakefield ― signed a formal retraction that year, which means that they renounced its conclusions.
Brian Deer, an investigative journalist, looked into the cases of each of Wakefield’s 12 study participants. He helped uncover Wakefield’s falsehoods in an investigation for the Sunday Times of London that lasted more than seven years, concluding that “no case was free of misreporting or alterations.”
For instance, Deer’s review of the children’s medical records and interviews with their parents revealed that not all of the children were “previously normal” before their vaccines; in fact, five had shown signs of developmental delays before receiving any shot. Three children who were reported to have autism were never actually diagnosed with the condition at all.
Most damning of all, Deer found, is that Wakefield had actually filed patents for his own, “safer” version of the measles vaccine.
In January of 2010, the U.K.’s General Medical Council, which sets medical standards in the country and decides which doctors are qualified to work there, concluded their own two-and-a-half-year investigation into Wakefield’s original study. They found that he acted unethically and with “callous disregard” for the distress and pain the children might suffer (one example they cited was that Wakefield paid children at his son’s birthday party for blood samples). They also found that he should have disclosed his financial ties to lawyers trying to file a suit against vaccine manufacturers.
What happened to Wakefield after that?
The GMC stripped Wakefield of his medical license over his unethical behavior, and he is no longer allowed to practice in the U.K.
But by then, he had already been in the U.S. for six years. In 2004, he founded a treatment center for children with autism in Texas, but resigned in 2010 after the GMC announced the results of their investigation.
He is now, apparently, a documentary filmmaker hellbent on protecting his legacy of disseminating misleading and harmful information about the link between vaccines and autism. You can catch his work at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival in New York.