Healthcare Community Stands Firm: Pediatric Vaccines Save Lives

The on-again, off-again debut of the controversial film “Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe” at the Tribeca Film Festival in March once again made the debate surrounding pediatric vaccination headline news.

The on-again, off-again debut of the controversial film “Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe” at the Tribeca Film Festival in March once again made the debate surrounding pediatric vaccination headline news.

The film, directed by former medical doctor Andrew Wakefield, chronicles the claims of an alleged whistleblower within the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who in 2014 leaked that there was an organized cover-up of research findings linking pediatric vaccination to autism. According to multiple media reports, the allegations central to the film have been proved to be a hoax. The Tribeca Film Festival reportedly decided to pull the film after objections from both the medical community and government officials.

“My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family,” actor and Festival co-founder Robert De Niro said in a statement (De Niro has a son with autism). “But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.”

This is not the first time Wakefield’s work has been at the center of controversy, particularly as it pertains to the issue of pediatric vaccination. A former gastroenterologist, he published a paper in the journal The Lancet in 1998 that described a research project involving 12 children who, the authors reported, displayed “developmental regression” within two weeks of being administered the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The authors also claimed to have identified a new syndrome, which they called autistic enterocolitis, as well as a link between the MMR vaccine and the development of autism.

Within a few years, however, Wakefield’s work was discredited when follow-up research was unable to duplicate his findings. The Lancet retracted the article in 2010, and Wakefield’s medical license was revoked the same year. Still, there are those within the medical community who would argue that the damage had already been done. According to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), from 2003 through 2013, the rate of parents applying for “personal belief exemptions” (PBEs) for the MMR vaccine for their children in the state quadrupled from 0.77 percent to 3.15 percent, before declining to 2.54 percent in 2014, when a law was implemented requiring counseling by a healthcare professional before a PBE is approved. CDPH reports that some schools in the state are still reporting PBE application rates as high as 80 percent, and recent outbreaks of both mumps and measles (including a 2014-15 outbreak of the latter) have been traced to unvaccinated or under-vaccinated children.

“I did not have the chance to see the movie yet, but anti-vaccination movements have been on the rise even before this movie [was released],” Christine Salvatore, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center told Contagion™. “The majority of supporters of the anti-vaccination groups are too young to have lived in the era when infectious diseases such as polio were one of the biggest causes of morbidity and mortality. Infant and children mortality and morbidity has dramatically improved due to the benefits of vaccines. Educating new parents and trying to re-educate parents who have “converted” to the non-vaccination movements has become a major commitment for pediatricians, because our children should look forward without the fear of these potentially dangerous infections.”

In 2011, the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society issued a position statement on PBEs that, among other recommendations, suggested that children who are unvaccinated for measles and/or mumps (or any other vaccine-preventable infection) due to their (or their parents’) beliefs on the issue, should be “barred” from all school-related activities when/if there is an outbreak of the disease. In general, the society “opposes any legislation or regulation that would allow children to be exempted from mandatory immunizations based simply on their parents’, or, in the case of adolescents, their own, secular personal beliefs.”

The statement also notes that, “Most parents who refuse vaccines for their children do so because they think vaccines may be harmful or that their children are not at risk from vaccine- preventable diseases. Their concerns are fueled by inaccurate reports in the media and on the Internet, celebrity hype, and bad or fraudulent scientific data. Parents are proximate victims of this misinformation… The ultimate victims, however, are the children, who in some cases have lost their lives to diseases that could have been prevented.”

Although, “Vaxxed” was not shown during the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, it is currently playing in theaters nationally and is scheduled to continue doing so through at least the end of May. It is likely that the controversy surrounding the film and its subject matter will persist long beyond its final showing—whenever that may be.

Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.