The controversial anti-vaccination movie Vaxxed – From Cover-up to Catastrophe is currently showing in small cinemas around New Zealand. The movie presents slickly-edited voice conversations of a scientist at the Atlanta Centre for Disease Control, who, it is claimed, implies the CDC hid research showing a link between the Mumps Measles Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. 

The movie originates from Andrew Wakefield, a disgraced UK doctor who, in a 1998 Lancet paper, proposed a link between MMR and autism. This study, which has become notorious in the annals of medical research, examined eight children showing symptoms of autism within one month of their MMR vaccination, without any comparisons to a control group. Wakefield’s research was found to be both unethical and fraudulent. He was also found to have been in the employ of a law firm intent on bringing a suit against vaccine manufacturers. He lost his UK medical licence and moved to Texas where he continues his claims and campaign of fear about vaccination. As ridiculous as this episode may seem, between the time the paper was published in 1998 and its retraction in 2010, panicked parents around the world had refused the MMR vaccine and childhood outbreaks of measles, mumps and rubella ensued.

The theory that autism is linked to any vaccine has been debunked. The latest comprehensive study published in the journal Vaccine in 2014 examined a cohort of 1.2 million children and found no differences in the rates of autism between vaccinated and un-vaccinated children. The tragedy is that the MMR-autism theory persists, promulgated by anti-vaccine groups, who have now brought the movie to these shores under the guise of a bona fide documentary that exposes a “cover-up and catastrophe”. 

Dr Lance O’Sullivan’s impassioned plea to the audience of Vaxxed in Kaitaia made national headlines and his reaction was for good reason. Vaccination rates in Northland are dropping and, as a dedicated GP, he regularly sees vaccine-preventable diseases in young children, some of whom die. His courageous action represents the frustration that all health practitioners and authorities feel in having to regularly defend the safety and efficacy of vaccination and the importance it has in preventing the re-emergence of contagious diseases.     

The anti-vaccine lobbyists say vaccination is no longer necessary because the diseases have gone away and this is partly true. Both smallpox and polio have been eradicated from the face of the earth, thanks to vaccination. But ask anyone over the age of 55 if they remember polio and the devastation it wrought. Many older people are still living with the crippling consequences of polio they contracted as children in the 1940s and 50s. Other diseases are still lurking. 

The organism that causes tetanus (Clostridium tetani) lives in the soil in your garden and Bordetella pertussis, the organism that causes whooping cough, lurks in the tiny droplets of air that we breathe. Rates of whooping cough increase wherever vaccination rates are lower. Whooping cough is not particularly bad in adults, but is a terrible disease in infants and of course adults can transmit the infection to children.

The anti-vaccine lobby uses the fact that autism rates are lower in countries with low vaccine rates to argue there is a direct connection between the two. It is true that diagnosed cases of autism have risen in developed countries but this is attributed to improved awareness and diagnosis. Likewise, countries that struggle with vaccination also struggle to diagnose autism.

Parents are naturally worried about causing even the slightest harm to their children and even a small injection, or the rare chance for a mild post-vaccination fever, is enough to concern them.  Couple this with a subversive campaign of misinformation from the anti-vaccine lobby and parents can be readily tipped to believe their children are better off without it. 

So why do people believe Andrew Wakefield rather than their family doctor? Is it because they think medicine is corporatised and uncaring and therefore not to be trusted? Conditions such as autism needed a cause and vaccination just happened to be the convenient culprit – without any evidence.

I have publicly labelled the behaviour of the anti-vaccine group as a form of terrorism, which has provoked moral outrage from the anti-vaccine lobby. Nevertheless, it is an easy comparison to make between those who use misinformation, whacky theories and fear to convince parents not to vaccinate with those who seek to do harm in more direct ways.

Parents – if you love your children, have them vaccinated. Immunisation is safe, it only causes mild discomfort at worst, and it protects them from truly horrific diseases and limits the spread to others.

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