Few health debates are as polarising as the one that rages over whether vaccines cause autism in children. Health authorities around the world say there is no link, while campaigners against vaccination point to a growing autism epidemic and the stories from thousands of parents who say their children have become autistic after being vaccinated.

Melanie Reid reports on the film that is going to fuel passions on both sides. To view the video report, use the player at the top of this page

Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe is the name of the movie, soon to screen in a secret location in Auckland. This controversial film has gone “underground” after planned screenings in many of the world’s major cities were abandoned after pressure from health officials and community leaders.

Organisers of the Auckland showing say they don’t want the same thing to happen here, so ticketholders will be advised of the venue just a few hours beforehand.

The film has been attacked by many public health authorities, saying the film is anti-science and “peddles myths around vaccines.” The film’s supporters say it exposes a cover-up by the medical and scientific communities.

Central to the film is a senior scientist from the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and a landmark study released over a decade ago. The study found there was no link between the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, and rubella) and autism.William Thompson is one of five CDC study scientists, and he is portrayed in the film as a whistle blower. He says a statistically significant link between MMR and autism was found in sub-groups of children, but that finding was made to “disappear”and was left out of the study presentation in 2004.

Thompson says the “higher-ups wanted to do certain things and I went along with it. In terms of chain of command I was number four out of five.”

Thompson says his conscience got the better of him and he orchestrated releasing the study data to another scientist, Brian Hooker, who is also the father of an autistic son.

Hooker reanalysed the raw data and says his findings confirmed what Thompson was claiming.

The scientific community hit back, saying that the reanalysis was flawed and the data doesn’t support what the film alleges. It suggests that Thompson is suffering mental illness and the Hooker study (of the reanalysed data) has since been retracted.

Speaking to Newsroom. from America, Hooker said that his published study stood up to the rigorous peer review process but, because he had received funding for the study from an autism group, it was retracted on the basis that he had a conflict of interest.

Helen Petousis-Harris, Director of Immunisation Research at the University of Auckland, says she has seen as much of the film as she could bear: “It is all the myths that we’ve had wrapped up in a glossy film, a very misguided glossy film.”

Petousis-Harris says the film can’t be taken seriously, “You’ve got one scientist saying what William Thompson is saying and you’ve got the rest of the global scientific community who have conducted many many studies (on MMR and autism) looking at this, all with the same findings.”

When questioned about the exponential rise in childhood autism, (now one child in 50 to 66 depending on what figures you look at) Petousis-Harris says there are three factors at play: Better reporting, genetic disposition, and an environmental factor.

“The question is, what are these environmental things contributing to autism and the one thing that we know is that it is not vaccines ….. they are absolutely not associated with autism, it is time to start doing these families and kids a favour and spending equal attention to looking at other possibilities.”

The film will screen on April 2nd.

Melanie Reid is Newsroom's lead investigations editor.

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