One thing's for sure: Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe is not for the faint of heart. The controversial documentary, directed by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, says its mission is to explore the dark side of the health-care industry and its relationship to vaccines. Through a series of personal home videos and evidence Wakefield says was provided by a worker at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Vaxxed zeroes in on a purported link between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.
Wakefield, who helped to author a study on the link between vaccines and neurological injury in 1998 and has researched the subject since, doesn't shy away from haters. Critics have long dismissed his work as wrong and dangerous; he lost his medical license in England in 2010 after charges of professional misconduct stemming from his since-retracted study, published in the medical journal The Lancet. "I come from a traditional medical perspective, and that is a place of conscience," says Wakefield, who was trained as a gastroenterologist. "Life leads you to crossroads. You can do what many of my colleagues did and say, 'Yes, this might be true, but I'm going to walk away from this because it may be uncomfortable for my career,' or you can do the moral thing and let people know what's actually going on."
That led to him becoming the director of a film that sparked furious debate even before it was supposed to debut. Last March, Vaxxed was accepted into Robert De Niro's Tribeca Film Festival. But just as quickly as it was announced, the documentary was removed after other directors threatened to pull their films if Wakefield's screened. "We were initially dismayed," says Wakefield. "We thought this was the end of our film career."
Several days after pulling Vaxxed, however, De Niro appeared on the Today Show and said, "The movie is something that people should see."
According to Wakefield, this resurrected the documentary. "[De Niro] told his personal story about how he believes his son regressed into autism after receiving a vaccine—and for being a very private person, this was a big deal," he says. "He normally doesn't take a stance on anything, and he took a stance on this."
Although critics blasted the film—Variety called it a "slickly produced but scientifically dubious hodgepodge of free-floating paranoia," while the Washington Post called it "closer to horror film than documentary"—Vaxxed has reinvigorated the anti-vaccination movement.
The movie—which Wakefield describes as a "whistleblower film"—showcases not only heart-wrenching testimonials from parents who claim their children were healthy until after receiving the MMR vaccine , but also recorded conversations between environmental biologist Brian Hooker and CDC employee William Thompson that, according to Wakefield, establishes a connection between the CDC and Big Pharma. "Thompson was essential to us," says Wakefield. "For his safety, we made sure that every claim we made could be cross-referenced, and anything that he even slightly speculated, we scrapped. This gave us all the confidence in the world to say that this is fraud. And the reason this is so scary is because it amounts to the most serious fraud in the history of the world."
(For his part, Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who has blamed Wakefield's theories for measles outbreaks, wrote for the Hollywood Reporter that the documentary was for people who believed "the moon landing was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage.")
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Vaxxed should play well in Orange County, which is home to Dr. Bob Sears, whose best-selling The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child is a bible for the movement. (Sears has stated, however, that his proposed vaccination schedules aren't anti-vaccine.) In South County, many wealthy families haven't vaccinated their children at all. As the Weekly reported in 2012, the Orange County Health Care Agency found the county vaccination-exemption rate in 2011 at 2.9 percent, but "at 15 of the 40 elementary schools in the Capistrano Unified School District, more than 10 percent of kindergartners had waivers, according to data from the California Department of Public Health. At one public charter school, Journey, 56 percent of kindergartners were unvaccinated, at least partially, due to their parents' beliefs."
Anaheim made international news last year after revealing that nine confirmed cases of measles were tied to people who had been at Disneyland or Disney's California Adventure. And longtime Costa Mesa City Councilman Gary Monahan, who has a son with autism, has raised eyebrows countywide after admitting to skipping vaccinations for his youngest four children. "How do I say this without sounding crazy?" he asked the Los Angeles Times last year. "I don't want anyone to get measles . . . but you have to make it easier for the parents through the health system to do it the right way. Pounding three live viruses into somebody at 1 year old is devastating."
Vaxxed is coming to local theaters over the next two weeks via an on-demand system that requires a minimum amount of tickets to be sold in order to screen the film; as of this article's publication, enough seats have sold to guarantee August viewings in Aliso Viejo, Newport Beach and Anaheim, with one pending in Laguna Niguel. "This documentary was the most obvious way for us to get this story out there," Wakefield says. "If you can't beat the media, then you must become the media."
Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe was directed by Andrew Wakefield. To find a local screening, visit gathr.us/films/vaxxed.