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‘Ban this rubbish’: antivax film trashed

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A controversial film that claims US health authorities are covering up evidence linking a vaccine to autism should be banned, according to AMA President Dr Michael Gannon.

Dr Gannon said that although it was against his “natural instincts” to urge censorship, he called on organisers of film festival planning to screen the show Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe to drop it from their program.

“Sadly, what you’ll see when you screen a film like this, you’ll see confirmation bias,” the AMA President said on ABC radio. “You’ll see people who want to believe that there’s something wrong here, and that will just get in their head. There are people who – for some strange reason – like believing in conspiracy theories.”

The Castlemaine Local and International Film Festival has become the centre of a social media storm after including Vaxxed in its 2016 program.

The film is written and directed by Andrew Wakefield, a former doctor who was struck off after being found to have falsified the results of a notorious 1998 study claiming to have a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism. It purports to document the experiences of a former US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employee who claims the CDC covered up data showing a statistically significant association between the MMR vaccine and autism in African American children.

The film was originally due to screen at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival until it was pulled by actor Robert De Niro under pressure from scientists and other filmmakers.

But Castlemaine Film Festival creative director David Thrussell has so far stuck by the film, which he argues presents “potentially compelling evidence from a whistleblower in the CDC”.

“The film is not an anti-vaccine film. It’s about a specific vaccine, and the allegations that this whistle-blower… produced results that potentially created evidence that that precise vaccine was potentially linked to autism. And they were pressured to suppress that information. That is what the documentary is about,” Mr Thrussell told ABC radio.

The film festival director said there was not a “definitive answer to this question, and I suggest other people don’t have definitive answers as well”, and by screening the film the festival was treating the audience as adults who can “make their own informed decision”.

But Dr Gannon said claims of a link between vaccines and autism had been held up to close public examination over a long period of time and proven to be false.

He said the makers of Vaxxed should not be given a platform to peddle their discredited claims.

“The director of the film’s an ex-colleague of mine called Dr Andrew Wakefield, who’s obviously decided that running a wellness clinic in exile in Cuba’s no longer floating his boat, and he’s going to make anti-vaccination films, having potentially damaged thousands of children in England and Wales with his false MMR scare campaign. He’s entirely discredited. Anyone he hangs around with is discredited,” the AMA President said.

Challenged over the right to present these claims in a film, Dr Gannon replied: “Not when it’s made by a charlatan, not when it’s made by someone who’s been entirely discredited by the scientific world, the medical world, someone who was struck off the medical register for having harmed people and been seen as being a danger to the community.

“That’s not the kind of person I’d be getting my scientific information from. And that’s not the kind of person who I would trust to fairly vet the claims of one person within a bureaucracy of tens of thousands of people.

“I would say censor and ban this rubbish.”

The AMA President lambasted the makers of the film for the “potential carnage” caused if it resulted in lower vaccination rates, and the harm it might inflict on families.

“Those families around Australia that struggle with the hardship of dealing with children afflicted by autism spectrum disorder, blaming them, setting them up, saying that they did something to injure their child’s brain development. I think that is so unfair,” he said.

Dr Gannon said the safety and efficacy of each vaccine was subject to rigours examination, and it was vital that people remained confident in the safety and effectiveness of the National Immunisation Program.

“Every individual vaccine is subject to the closest level of scrutiny as to its effectiveness, both for individuals and a population level, and it’s safe,” he said. “I can assure your listeners that the health authorities do take this stuff extremely seriously [and] even small pockets of people who choose not to vaccinate their children, there is a cost to be had there.

“One, two, three per cent reductions in vaccination rates harm children. They put them in intensive care, they kill them. This is not scare-mongering. It is so important to maintain vaccination rates well above 90 per cent. It’s irresponsible to do anything that might threaten the public’s health.”

Adrian Rollins