The Tribeca Film Festival, a well-known annual event in New York City co-founded by actor Robert DeNiro, refused to back down from screening a film directed by discredited former doctor Andrew Wakefield about the conspiracy theory that autism is linked to vaccines.
The film, “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” offers, according to the film festival’s website, a look at “the long-debated link between autism and vaccines” and “what’s behind the skyrocketing increase of autism diagnoses today.” Yet there is no credible evidence that vaccines have an effect on autism rates.
Wakefield wrote and directed the film. While the biographical information for Wakefield appears to now be gone from the festival website, it originally made no reference to the fact that his 1998 study that purported to find evidence that the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) puts children at greater risk of autism was retracted in 2000, two years after its publication, over ethical violations and a failure to disclose financial conflicts of interest, or that his medical license has been revoked.
On Friday, under pressure over the film, the festival released a statement from DeNiro, who has a child with autism, saying:
Grace [his wife] and I have a child with autism and we believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined. In the 15 years since the Tribeca Film Festival was founded, I have never asked for a film to be screened or gotten involved in the programming. However this is very personal to me and my family and I want there to be a discussion, which is why we will be screening VAXXED. I am not personally endorsing the film, nor am I anti-vaccination; I am only providing the opportunity for a conversation around the issue.
The trailer for the film starts with text asking, “Are our children safe?” and includes assertions that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has committed fraud and covered up the link between autism and vaccines. There are no voices from experts disputing the connection.
While Wakefield’s work laid the ground for the anti-vaccination movement, which gained prominence from celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey who have spread the conspiracy theory and continued to make parents in Western countries skeptical of vaccines, studies continue to be published affirming the safety of vaccination and finding no links with autism rates. Last year, a large study of nearly 100,000 children was hailed as the “nail in the coffin” of the persistent myth, finding no evidence even among some children who are more at risk of developing autism.
Even so, the spread of the conspiracy theory has had a provable effect on dissuading parents from vaccinating their children, leading to outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles. The United States saw its first confirmed measles death last year in more than a decade, after the disease had been virtually eradicated in 2000.