Controversial Andrew Wakefield film Vaxxed will be screened in Vancouver

It comes in the wake of Donald Trump launching a review of vaccine safety

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      There's probably nothing that gets public health officials more agitated than suggestions that parents should not vaccinate their children.

      In their mind, one of the greatest villains behind this is former British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield.

      In 1998, Wakefield was the lead researcher for a paper linking the widely administered measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to the development of autism and bowel disease.

      It was published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, causing an international uproar.

      It also set off a furious counterreaction as vaccination rates started falling in western industrialized countries.

      British investigative journalist Brian Deer wrote several articles criticizing Wakefield's research, drawing attention to financial conflicts of interest. Deer also reported on how the 12 research subjects in the study were recruited, maintaining that evidence had been manipulated.

      In 2005, Wakefield sued Deer for defamation. The case was dropped after Deer reported that Wakefield had received £435,643 as an expert witness to support a legal challenge against the MMR vaccine.

      Deer's work led to a British Medical Council investigation of Wakefield. It concluded that Wakefield and two colleagues were guilty on four charges of dishonesty and that Wakefield acted irresponsibly. Moreover, the council ruled that kids were given unnecessary medical treatments, including colonoscopies.

      The Lancet retracted the article in 2010 and Wakefield was barred from practising medicine.

      You would think that would have been the end of the story.

      However, Wakefield has refused to back down on his criticism of vaccines.

      In 2012, he sued Deer, again unsuccessfully, for alleged false accusations of fraud.

      Wakefield enrages critics by making a film

      In 2016, Wakefield directed a film, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, which takes a critical look at a 2004 U.S. Centers for Disease Control evaluation of the MMR vaccine.

      Vaxxed highlights CDC psychologist and senior researcher William Thompson's revelations to Simpson University assistant professor of biology Brian Hooker in 2013 and 2014. At the time, Thompson declared that data has been destroyed linking the MMR vaccine to neurological disorders in African American males.

      “I regret that my co-authors and I omitted statistically significant information in our 2004 article published in the Journal of Pediatrics," Thompson is quoted saying in the film. "I cannot believe we did what we did. But we did. It’s the lowest point in my career.”

      Thompson also shared his concerns with Florida Congressman Bill Posey.

      The scientific community pounced on Thompson, questioning his motives and even his sanity.

      In 2016, Thompson surprised the antivaccine movement by refuting his earlier claim about the MMR vaccine and neurological disorders. He maintained that socioeconomic factors accounted for the effects observed in African American males. 

      Hooker, however, remains a vaccine skeptic. On his website, he stated that he's "suspect of any analysis coming from the CDC due to the historic nature of the agency’s scientific misconduct and conflicts of interest specifically around any link between vaccines and autism".

      Robert De Niro and Grace Hightower withdrew Vaxxed from the Tribeca Film Festival.
      David Shankbone

      Last year when Tribeca Film Festival founder and actor Robert De Niro included Vaxxed on the schedule of screenings, there was an outcry from the scientific community.

      In the face of this pressure, De Niro withdrew the film. He and his wife, Grace Hightower, have a child with autism.

      Flashforward to 2017 and Vaxxed continues being shown, despite the controversy that it invariably generates.

      On Tuesday (February 7), it will have its Vancouver premiere at Cinematheque with screenings at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

      It's being presented as a fundraiser by the Health Action Network, which has promised to host discussions afterward.

      The following night, Vaxxed will be shown at the Edward Milne Community School theatre in Sooke on Vancouver Island.

      So far, there's no word that Wakefield will be in attendance at any of these screenings.

      Donald Trump has condemned vaccines

      The screenings come as the antivaccine movement is back in the news.

      In recent years, two of the most high-profile U.S. critics of vaccine safety have been environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the former New York senator, and President Donald Trump.

      Trump stated his opinion in a 2014 tweet.

      Kennedy has been associated with liberal causes over the years but Trump recently appointed him to head a vaccine-safety commission.

      This has generated alarm among scientists, who were also horrified by Trump's decision to meet Wakefield last year.

      “Clearly Donald Trump has questions about vaccine safety—he made that clear in the first debate—but I still would have imagined he would have sought out some level of expertise,” Paul Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told Politico. “There is an enormous amount of expertise about vaccines in this country. Instead, he picks [to advise him] two people—Andrew Wakefield and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—who both have no expertise and, frankly, are conspiracy theorists.”

      Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been an outspoken critic of the safety of vaccines.

      Low vaccination rates persist in parts of Vancouver

      Last year, UBC researchers Richard Carpiano and Julie Bettinger published a paper in Vaccine Reports examining the extent of vaccine coverage in schools within the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority's boundaries.

      "Our findings identify lower coverage among some types of private schools and in affluent and disadvantaged communities—and corroborate documented US coverage patterns," they wrote. "Future studies need to investigate school and community factors that may contribute to such patterns, in order to identify potential mechanisms and design appropriate interventions to increase vaccine coverage."

      B.C. doesn't require children to be vaccinated to attend school. When they're in kindergarten, public-health nurses note their status and vaccination clinics are held, according to the paper.

      "Despite these measures, up-to-date rates for nearly all routine vaccines from 2011 to 12 were under 90%," Carpiano and Bettinger reported.

      They noted that the highest vaccination rates in schools were recorded in Richmond, with the lowest occurring in the Downtown Eastside.

      Schools in West Vancouver, the West Side of Vancouver, and Bowen Island had rates far below those in Richmond.