A screenwriter who worked on “Shrek” and other Hollywood blockbusters is developing a new — and apparently sympathetic — movie about Andrew Wakefield, the discredited British physician who launched the anti-vaccine movement with a fraudulent study suggesting that vaccines can cause autism.
Wakefield is already popping up on the big screen in cities nationwide in “Vaxxed,” a documentary that sparked controversy this spring when actor Robert De Niro made and then canceled plans to premiere it at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Wakefield directed and also appears in “Vaxxed,” which strikes a paranoid tone about the “medical industrial complex” and alleges an array of conspiracies to promote vaccines. The movie has been shown in at least nine cities, including Detroit, San Francisco, and New Orleans, since its premiere on April 1 in New York.
The new film is based on Wakefield’s 2010 book “Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines — The Truth Behind a Tragedy.”
It was published just after the journal the Lancet retracted Wakefield’s 1998 paper suggesting that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines could cause autism — and around the time that the UK’s medical regulator revoked his medical license for a series of ethical violations.
Wakefield’s book, in which he frames himself as a truth-teller unfairly targeted by the medical establishment, has been thoroughly debunked.
“It is just terrible. If he handed it in as a term paper as an undergraduate, I wouldn’t pass him,” said Joel Harrison, a retired epidemiologist who wrote a journal article in 2013 rebutting the book’s claims, point by point.
Harrison’s paper identifies a slew of instances in which Wakefield cites dubious sources or draws inflammatory and inaccurate conclusions. For example, it debunks Wakefield’s claim, extrapolated from an anecdote, that “up to 14,337” deaths were caused from an allergic reaction to the measles and rubella vaccine. (Wakefield’s estimate includes cases not necessarily associated with the vaccine and ignores many international studies of millions of children in which no deaths were reported.)
Harrison said he’s worried that any movie made about the book “will do harm” by influencing undecided parents against vaccinations.
A wealth of gold-standard studies back up the scientific consensus that vaccines do not cause autism. Vaccines avert between 2 and 3 million deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization.
Terry Rossio, who has co-written blockbuster screenplays for movies including “Shrek,” “Aladdin,” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, will develop the screenplay based on Wakefield’s book. He’ll be working with Dr. Jocelyn Stamat, who was described as a practicing otolaryngologist in a press release announcing the project issued last week by the Creative Artists Agency. They didn’t immediately respond to questions from STAT about the project.
But there’s reason to suspect they’ll give Wakefield’s ideas credibility.
“Dr. Wakefield is clearly a polarizing figure, reviled by the general public yet also revered by many,” Rossio was quoted as saying in the press release. “The details and drama surrounding his life are even more remarkable than generally known.”
Wakefield’s documentary, “Vaxxed,” has drawn some sold-out crowds at its limited screenings, according to the film’s distributor, perhaps boosted by an endorsement from De Niro, who called it “something that people should see.”
But Dorit Reiss, a law professor at University of California at Hastings and a vocal critic of the anti-vaccination movement, tweeted that she was one of two people in the theater when she attended a recent screening.
There was one more person watching #Vaxxed with me. pic.twitter.com/VwnbqtdZxq
— (((Dorit Reiss))) (@doritmi) April 28, 2016