HOUSTON (CN) — Backed by a mob of moms, creators of a documentary about a government whistleblower claiming a link between vaccines and autism sounded the alarm this week in Houston after it was dropped from two film festivals.
Released April 1, “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” was directed by Andrew Wakefield, a former gastroenterologist in his native United Kingdom whose 1998 paper in The Lancet medical journal suggesting a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine was discredited by a reporter for The Sunday Times in 2004.
Wakefield fell further from grace in 2010 when a five-member tribunal of the British General Medical Council, a doctor-licensing board, found his research had abused the trust of developmentally disabled children and barred him from practicing in the United Kingdom.
The Lancet retracted Wakefield’s paper in 2010 in response to the tribunal’s ruling and its editor-in-chief called Wakefield’s findings “utterly false.”
Experts say Wakefield’s work is responsible for a spike in parents choosing not to vaccinate their kids in the United States, an issue that flared up in 2014 with a measles outbreak that started in Disneyland and infected 147 people, including 131 Californians.
Led by state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, a medical doctor who says the claim that vaccines cause autism has “been debunked,” California leaders passed Senate Bill 277 in 2015, which mandates that public school children be immunized against 10 diseases.
But Wakefield found an ally in an unlikely place — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency that recommends an aggressive immunization schedule for infants, more than 20 shots before age 2.
As documented in the film “Vaxxed,” Dr. William Thompson, a CDC epidemiologist, contacted Dr. Brian Hooker, an environmental biologist with a severely autistic teenage son who constantly sucks on a baby bottle filled with milk, and revealed to Hooker he was the lead researcher on a CDC study linking autism to measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, shots. He said his colleagues had thrown away the smoking-gun data.
“My son Steven was born in February of 1998. Two weeks after his 15-month vaccines, he lost all language, he lost all eye contact, you’d pick him up and he would just hang limp,” Hooker says in the film.
Hooker says in the film the CDC was just starting to study vaccines and autism at this time and he didn’t like the results.
“I was contacting the CDC and was deeply critical of their studies. So the CDC decided the scientist who was going to interface with me at that time was Dr. William Thompson,” Hooker says in “Vaxxed.”
A CDC attorney contacted Hooker in 2004 and told him he could no longer talk to Thompson.
But in 2014, according to the film, Thompson reached out to Hooker and revealed the cover-up that allegedly went all the way up to the then-head of the agency Dr. Julie Gerberding.
Hooker contacted Wakefield, who advised Hooker to record all his phone calls with Thompson, and the film includes excerpts from those conversations.
“Oh my God. I can’t believe we did what we did. But we did,” Thompson tells Hooker in a nasally voice in one of the recordings.
Wakefield made that quote the tagline of “Vaxxed.” It was on the front of T-shirts worn by around 50 people — mostly women, some of them pushing babies in strollers — who gathered around a “Vaxxed” bus in downtown Houston on Tuesday. The bus is hauling the creators around the country on a promotional tour.
The documentary had an inauspicious start. Set for a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in April, the festival’s co-founder, actor Robert DeNiro, removed it from the lineup.
DeNiro explained the move in a post on the festival’s website: “My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family. But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.”
It got a similar reception in Houston after it was booked for the city-funded Worldfest Houston in April. Someone who works in childhood immunization contacted Ed Emmett, CEO of Harris County, about the documentary, according to KHOU, Houston’s CBS affiliate.
Emmett then contacted Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who advised the festival organizers to drop the film, with a mayor’s office spokesman telling KHOU, “We just couldn’t have city funding encouraging folks not to have their kids vaccinated.”
Wakefield’s return to Houston this week brought out supporters who patrolled the sidewalk outside City Hall chanting through bullhorns, “Houston censored. Vaxxed is back.”
Del Bigtree, 46, is a medical journalist, who produced the daytime TV talk show “The Doctors” for six years before leaving to produce “Vaxxed.”
“I left television so I could tell this story. All of our sponsors, all the pharmaceutical ads in every commercial break, that’s who’s actually paying for our news now, that’s who’s paying our news anchors, that’s where all the funding is coming from, so when you have a story like a whistleblower from the CDC coming forward, you can’t tell that story in the news because the pharmaceutical industry won’t allow it,” Bigtree said in front of the movie’s black tour bus, which he said bears the signatures of hundreds of “vaccine-injured” kids.
Bigtree, his blue eyes flashing in his handsome California-tanned face, said he learned from his work on the “The Doctors” that vaccines aren’t tested the way drugs are.
“If you think about it, grandpa’s Viagra went through 10 years of double-blind safety studies,” he said. “The hepatitis B vaccine we’re giving to a one-day-old baby was only tested for four days. That’s criminal. And it’s dangerous and it’s reckless.”
Several mothers at the Houston rally told a similar story: Their babies were healthy, engaging children until they were vaccinated. Then everything changed — the kids stopped communicating and making eye contact and withdrew into their own worlds, the mothers said.
Monique Doolittle, 41, said her son walked at 10 months and was progressing normally at 15 months. She said she missed his 15-month vaccinations and took him in for his 16-month shots.
“My pediatrician said, ‘Well he’s going to be due for his 18-month vaccinations, you’re here now let’s just do them together.’ I asked is that safe and he said yes,” she said.
She says, that same day, her son got shots for MMR, DTaP for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, and Hib, for pneumonia and meningitis.
“Our son went from this happy, happy little boy to a boy that just had a blank stare, didn’t want to touch anybody, lost his eye contact, his language, his ability to sleep through the night, all after the vaccines. And we asked our doctor could this be the vaccines? He said, ‘Absolutely not,'” Monique and her husband Michael Doolittle, 40, said.
Michael said they spent $80,000 on 32 rounds of IV chelation therapy “to remove toxic heavy metals that were in his body from the vaccines” before he started to talk again.
“He was urinating 300 parts per million of aluminum in a two-month sample of his piss,” Michael said, adding that he got his home water tested and found no trace of aluminum.
Monique said her son, now 11, can express when he’s upset, but can’t engage in typical parent-child conversations.
“If I ask him, ‘How was your day at school?’ He’ll say, ‘School.’ Or he’ll tell me what he had for lunch, ‘I had cheese pizza for lunch,'” she said.
Monique said her sister told her she’s not learning anything about vaccines in nursing school.
“They say you do the vaccines. You do them at this time, this time, this time to prevent the diseases. They don’t cover side effects, they don’t cover the ingredients, they don’t cover what could potentially happen. And they literally told her, ‘Those parents who think it causes autism are idiots,'” she said.
Some doctors have indeed taken a harsh stance against skeptical parents.
A Houston mother who asked not to be named said her pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital advised her to find another doctor if she decides not to get her infant fully vaccinated by age 2.
Asked if this is an official policy of the hospital system, a Texas Children’s spokeswoman did not immediately respond.
Contrary to perceptions, Bigtree said, he’s not against vaccines.
“What I’m trying to do is protect choice for all of Americans, I want people who believe in vaccines to be able to use whatever vaccines they want. I also want people that want to spread out their vaccines or separate them or use fewer of them, to do what they want,” he said.
Nor is Wakefield against all vaccines. In the final scenes of “Vaxxed,” he recommends that parents wait until after their child is 3 to give them MMR shots, and separate the shot into three single doses.
Wakefield and Bigtree are urging Congress to subpoena Thompson so he can testify about the CDC cover-up.
“Bill Thompson wants to be subpoenaed by Congress. As a CDC employee for the federal government, he cannot speak voluntarily because of the threat of jail time,” Hooker says in the film, which documents how Thompson gave his evidence to Rep. Bill Posey, a Florida Republican.
Posey asked his colleagues to subpoena Thompson from the House floor in July 2015.
“They have done nothing,” according to the film.
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