NEW YORK — A controversial anti-vaccine documentary premiered here Friday to a small but delighted crowd — a reception that points to the deep and persistent distrust of scientific evidence among activists who continue to believe, despite a vast body of evidence, that vaccines can cause autism.
The film struck a paranoid tone, seeking to raise doubts about the “medical industrial complex.”
It hit at a range of targets: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for allegedly hiding vital data. Drug companies, for trying to “create an environment of constant vaccination from cradle to grave.” Even television news programs, for allegedly promoting the pharmaceutical industry’s agenda.
At times the camera flashed through complex-looking spreadsheets and charts, not always slowing down to explain the data.
Still, the message resonated strongly with some members of the audience. When STAT asked some attendees about the overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe, they brushed it away.
“It’s stressful that the press has been bought and sold like this,” said New York City resident Lisa Interollo.
She choked up as she spoke.
“I don’t have any more faith left in the scientific literature. I don’t have one iota of trust in these people anymore,” Interollo said.
Avril Dannenbaum, 59, said it felt “damn good” to see her concerns about vaccinations affirmed in the film. She said her trust in vaccines turned to suspicion after her son, now a thriving teenager, regressed developmentally for several years as a toddler after getting some of his vaccinations.
Directed by the discredited British researcher and anti-vaccine activist Andrew Wakefield, the film debuted here in the city’s SoHo neighborhood to a crowd of nearly 80 people.
It had been set to premiere just a short subway ride north of here at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival later this month. But an outpouring of criticism from public health advocates prompted the festival’s cofounder, actor Robert De Niro, to abruptly yank it from the program last weekend.
The film was packed with footage of emotional parents who said they observed disturbing behaviors in their children after vaccinations. In one scene, a mother cries as she talks about how her vaccinated son still can’t manage to cross the street, while his twin, a girl shown playing the piano, thrives.
Wakefield and producer Del Bigtree spent a remarkable amount of time on screen, advancing the chief arguments of their own documentary. Others interviewed on screen included MIT computer scientist Stephanie Seneff and Dr. James Sears, a pediatrician and co-host of a television show that Bigtree produced.
“Vaxxed” also advanced, but provided no evidence for, a conspiracy theory which has been circulating for about two years among anti-vaccine activists and concerned parents.
The theory holds that the CDC has covered up vital data and committed fraud. It’s based on concerns that a CDC scientist, William Thompson, raised about a study that he and several colleagues published in the journal Pediatrics in 2004.
Thompson, who has been hailed in the anti-vaccine community as a whistleblower, has said he believes the study omitted data that would have shown a link between a certain vaccine and autism in certain African-American boys.
But Thompson has also made clear that he would never tell parents not to vaccinate their children. His voice is heard offscreen in several phone calls, but he never shows up in person in the documentary, and one frame of the film displays text acknowledging that Thompson “is unaware he is being recorded during every phone call in this film.”
Producer Bigtree told STAT in an interview following the screening that the film is not anti-vaccine. He said the filmmakers simply oppose the widely administered combination vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella (known as MMR). They advocate for separate vaccines against each disease.
“We don’t want to see measles not vaccinated,” Bigtree said. “I don’t think that’s an anti-vaccine message, I’d say that’s a very pro-vaccine message.”
The MMR vaccine has been demonstrated to be safe in many large-scale studies.
Experts blame abstention from vaccinations for thousands of preventable deaths. The US saw more cases of measles in 2014, for instance, than it had in any year since world health officials declared the disease eliminated in North America, back in 2000.
Bigtree told STAT the film was backed by about $400,000 in donations. Promotional materials listed one donor as a charitable foundation backed by hedge fund manager Bernard Selz. A Texas law firm, Cullinane Law Group, was listed as another donor.
More screenings are planned over the next week, including two sold-out showings Friday and Saturday evening, said Beth Portello, a spokesperson for the film’s distributor Cinema Libre Studio.
This story was updated with more scenes from the documentary.