Reviewing “Vaxxed”: Beyond the Wakefield Drama

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I closed the office early because we had a 90 minute drive ahead of us.  Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe is screening in Sarasota to our north, and this is the closest our region of Florida will come to seeing it.  My wife and I loaded up our 5 month old son to meet her sister, who was driving down from Tampa, to see the film.  That meant thanks to a busy day I’d had a juice for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and one and a half granola bars for dinner by the time we arrived in a line that spanned the entire lobby of the Regal Theaters’ Hollywood 20 cineplex.  Our gluten free, dairy free option for food consisted of a large popcorn and pop to share among the 3 of us.  Good thing we weren’t attending a film on GMO’s.  Fortunately for him, the baby carries his food supply around with him (or is that the other way around?) so at least he was a happy camper.

Producers of Vaxxed at Sarasota

Andrew Wakefield, Polly Tommey and Del Bigtree, producers of Vaxxed attend a Q&A in Sarasota, FL.

I knew going into it what Vaxxed was about.  Andrew Wakefield had screened the primary points at the ICPA’s Freedom for Family Wellness Summit in 2014.  It was frustrating to see the national media and medical social media discussing a film they obviously hadn’t seen as worthless because of Wakefield.  Frustrating because of the irony.  Here were critics calling the director a fraud because the CDC and countless studies had “proven” so, and yet the film is about the fraud committed at the CDC to cover up the age-associated correlation between certain combination vaccines and neurological injury.

Del Bigtree, former producer of The Doctors,  did the updated film a great service.  He made it emotional, he knew how to both touch a viewer’s heartstrings and fire up their vitrol.  I unsuccessfully fought tears twice: Once during a mother’s interview about the life her son will never have, and the second time in frustration because I knew the paucity of services in our area to help those with moderate to severe autism as they become adults.  I’m either the first to recognize an issue or the last stop for parents who have no idea what else to do.  It breaks my heart every single time.  I wasn’t alone.  At the Q&A afterwards when the audience was asked if they were moved by the film, every hand in the sold out theater went up.

Watch the full Q&A on the Autism Media Channel’s Periscope.

The basic premise of the film is this:  Dr. Brian Hooker, an autism researcher and father of a young man with autism, had badgered the CDC for years about vaccination safety data to the point where they sent him a warning to stop before they took legal action.  Years later Dr. William Thompson, one of five authors of the CDC’s report denying a connection between MMR and autism, contacted Hooker and gave him a breadcrumb trail that lead him to data buried and/or destroyed by his group because it demonstrated a strong correlation between African-American boys, the timing of the MMR vaccine, and the future diagnosis of isolated autism.  Isolated autism was defined as a case where no pre-existing conditions or co-morbidities were found; in other words, the toddlers weren’t sick, were developing neurotypically, there was no family history, and suddenly they were showing at least two of three criteria:  social-behavior withdrawl, stimming, or sensory dysfunction.  The film stated the rate of this isolated autism diagnosis is much higher for children exposed to the vaccine between 15-18 months than those exposed after 3 years.

The CDC’s research plan stated they were going to source their information from Georgia public school records.  However according to Thompson the data became “problematic;” a statistically significant, clear trend emerged of black boys developing autism in correlation to MMR vaccination.  In an email to his superiors Thompson shared with Hooker, he stated the team was “struggling with” the data, but they found something interesting if they only used the children with Georgia birth certificates.  The CDC stated, when forced to address this issue in 2015,

Access to the information on the birth certificates allowed researchers to assess more complete information on race as well as other important characteristics, including possible risk factors for autism such as the child’s birth weight, mother’s age, and education. This information was not available for the children without birth certificates; hence CDC study did not present data by race on black, white, or other race children from the whole study sample. It presented the results on black and white/other race children from the group with birth certificates.

Doc and babywearers in the audience during Q and A

Doc Edwards among other babywearing parents at the Vaxxed Q&A in Sarasota, FL

In other words, by not reporting on race for the entire study sample, Thompson said his researchers were able to bury the race- MMR link.  In a meeting that only exists thanks to Thompson’s surviving notes, the original tabulated data sets, both paper and electronic, including any notes that referenced the previous findings were ordered erased, shredded, and destroyed.  Hooker took this information to Wakefield, and having had his name be co-opted as a term for public evisceration, Wakefield suggested Thompson get protection.  One of the major call to actions is to contact our representatives in Congress and grant Dr. Thompson federal whistleblower protection so he can be called to testify at a Congressional hearing without being fired or thrown in jail for tampering with the evidence the Department of Justice has requested from the CDC in regards to the vaccination studies.

Our son was pretty well-behaved during the film; he watched a little, snacked a little, squawked a little.  I spent most of the movie wearing him in the Moby wrap either sitting while he snoozed or walking the corridor when he’d rouse back awake.  During the Q&A that followed with producers Wakefield, Bigtree, and Polly Tommey the expected questions arose about helping children with autism, next action steps for the audience, and questions from fathers of other young boys about the proposal of splitting the MMR vaccination into individual doses.  As I mentioned the issue I’ve had with the critiques of the film is that they were heavily directed at Wakefield’s study from 20 years ago, not the content of the documentary.  I finally read a review of Vaxxed written in April by CDC vaccination spokesman Dr. Paul Offit that actually attacked the data that is the centerpiece of this film.

The real explanation for Vaxxed‘s “revelation” isn’t conspiracy or hidden data; it’s something else. When compared with their Caucasian counterparts, African-American boys in Atlanta in 1994 were under-vaccinated. In order to qualify for autism-support programs, this subset of under-vaccinated children with autism had to get vaccinated. In other words, it wasn’t that MMR had caused autism; it was that the diagnosis of autism had caused them to get MMR. Not surprisingly, this is never explained in the film.

I looked for corroboration of this information, that the CDC knowingly included autistic black boys who then received their shots, and could not find it.  The CDC theorized this was the case in 2004 with the mangled data, then reiterated the statement in the above 2015 piece as they were forced to answer to why they changed their methodology to omit race.   I had an opportunity to ask Dr. Wakefield this question.  Was what Offit and the CDC claimed possible, that the conclusion of the film was backwards?  In short, according to Wakefield the assertion is “garbage.”  He commented that a child with ASD isn’t typically diagnosed until 4 years of age.  Locally, we’re lucky if the pediatric neurologist will provide a diagnosis before 5 years old, and that’s in line with a 2012 CDC report that stated half of autism diagnoses aren’t given until after 5 years old, and less than 1 in 5 are caught in the age group important for this study.  The data set didn’t show a striking correlation with children who were vaccinated from 4-6 years, the age of the second shot.   The untainted data showed almost exactly the opposite; black boys aged 15-18 months, too young for diagnosis, were the ones most likely to end up with autism if they’d been given the MMR vaccine during this time, especially if they had no neurological co-factors or pre-exisiting conditions.  This is a major hole in the CDC’s argument.  It’s virtually impossible for it to have happened the way Offit states, unless he hadn’t actually seen the film prior to his review and was presuming the data in Vaxxed was addressing children over 3.

In order for Offit to be right, if we’re all discussing the same pool of 18-36 mo black toddler boys from Georgia, they would have needed better access to doctors in the mid 1990’s (back when ASD rates were 1 in 150) than the other 81.3% of children nationwide who had to wait years later for someone to recognize their diagnosis.   It’s theoretically possible, but not likely, that a high number of expert autism doctors are balled all up into the 6 county area of metro Atlanta rather than spread across the nation. For this to be true, virtually every under 2 year old with autism in Georgia would need to be diagnosed with the condition, and those exceptionally high numbers would pull up the averages from every other state in the US.  In reality Georgia isn’t exactly famous for it’s commitment to autism resources.  Google “Best states autism,” and see how many results you need to look through before you get to Georgia.  I was up until 3 am, I wish you luck.  You don’t need a degree in mathematics to see their statement is statistically improbable.  It doesn’t even pass the sniff test.

From what I can figure out, according to the CDC’s Autism Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network report of surveillance in 2000 and 2002, the average age for autism diagnosis in Georgia was 4 years 8 months in 2000.  So either the doctors suddenly got much worse in the 6 years from 1994 to 2000, or again the parents of autistic kids looking to get MMR vaccines in exchange for services would have to be rainbow-maned unicorn lucky geographically because typically black children don’t receive early diagnosis as frequently as white children do.  That’s a lot of stars that have to align to make Offit’s claim correct.  You would have to suspend your disbelief to imagine that then, diagnosis somewhat miraculously in hand, these in-the-know parents went to get their autistic boys vaccinated so they could attend special-education preschools.  Even if all of this subsequent CDC research didn’t contradict this statement the original authors of the study could actually back this claim up by cross-referencing it with special education enrollment information from the school records like IEP’s or ABA’s.  But based on Thompson’s statements I don’t think you’re going to find that information if you apply to see the raw data from the 2004 study.  Wakefield himself works it out for everyone in his response to my question here:

I’m not anti-vaccine.  I have patients that vaccinate their children, some that delay, and a lot that don’t do it.  I’ve always supported my parents’ right to choose what goes into their children’s bodies.  But people rely on institutions to tell the truth so they can make informed decisions.  Thompson points out that the problems at the CDC run far deeper, but he only wanted to present Hooker with hard documented evidence that couldn’t disappear or be relegated to hearsay.  That’s what the film presents to the viewer.  The story is much, much larger than Andrew Wakefield.  Presuming the film is all about him is like saying Star Wars is all about Obi Wan Kenobi.  Is he a central character?  Yes.  But Thompson plays Luke Skywalker here.  I’ll leave it to you to figure out who plays his father.

Families for informed choices

Our family at the Vaxxed screening at the Regal Cinemas Hollywood 20 theater in Sarasota, FL

If it is released within a 2 hour drive of your town, go see this movie for yourself even if you think you know the story.  Vaxxed has the potential to be up there with the documentaries that nudged this country towards social change, like An Inconvenient Truth, Food, Inc., The Cove, Who Killed the Electric Car?, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Sicko.  It’s a fueling a conversation you’ll want to be a part of.