Last year, Robert De Niro decided to screen a documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival that purported to have found a connection between vaccines and autism. The film, “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” claims to unearth a cover-up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of a direct link between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.
The film follows the narrative of a “whistleblower” from the CDC claimed that the agency manipulated and destroyed data relating to a study of this link. The film was directed by the widely discredited former doctor, Andrew Wakefield (who was struck off the British medical register for a fraudulent 1998 research paper about vaccines and autism), and was subsequently condemned as propaganda.
While he initially defended this decision, De Niro quickly changed course and withdrew the film after “reviewing it…with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community” (Page Six, “Filmmakers accuse Robert De Niro of ‘censorship’, 3.28.2016). De Niro did receive some criticism for censorship from some people, the incident was mostly forgotten.
That was until recently, when the actor appeared alongside environmental activist, and longtime vaccine oppositionist, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to offer $100,000 to anyone who could prove that vaccines using thimerosal are safe with a peer-reviewed study (Daily News, “Robert De Niro, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. offer $100G for proof vaccines are safe,” 02.15.17). Presumably, this is not counting the large number of individuals who have already proved this over a number of decades, I guess. This article is not my bid for that money. I’ll leave that to the actual scientists. Instead, I seek to examine the problematic nature of the anti-vaccine movement and the very real damage that people like Mr. Kennedy and Mr. De Niro can cause.
Let’s assume, for a moment, that vaccines do cause autism. Even then, vaccines are much safer than the alternative. Let’s consider first the consequences of vaccines if this is accepted, namely autism. Contrary to what anti-vaccine activists may claim, autism is not a death sentence. Many autistic people have lived happy, full lives with successful careers. Temple Grandin, Albert Einstein and Thomas Jefferson come to mind.
Yet let’s for a moment concede that these cases are exceptional, and that for “low-functioning” autistics, life is hard (although note that this statement is extraordinarily reductionist and frankly, wholly inaccurate). Even in those cases, it is a stretch to claim that their conditions are so terrible as to be worth risking their deaths. Believing otherwise has serious consequences as it opens the door to mercy killings (and if you don’t believe me I’d recommend googling Austin Anderson, George Hodges, Daniel Corby, Jude Mirra, Issy Stapleton, London McCabe or Alex Spourdalakis). As such, ableism underlies the anti-vaccine movement, despite its professed interest in “protecting” children.
The consequences of not getting vaccinated are of considerably greater significance. Let’s look at one of the more controversial vaccines, those for measles. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention prior to the development of a vaccine in 1963, there were an estimated 450 to 500 deaths as the result of measles in the United States per year. In 2015, the United States experienced its first measles death in 12 years. That means from the entire period between 2003 and 2015 not one person died of measles (USA Today, “Measles kills first patient in 12 years”, 7.2.2015).
Yet many anti-vaccine activists have gone so far as to become literal measles apologists. Stephanie Messenger, an Australian lecturer and anti-vaxxer, went so far as to write “Melanie’s Marvelous Measles,” a children’s book about how wonderful measles are and how awful vaccines are (yes, this is a real book).
Considering that 367 people die of measles every day around the globe, this seems to be in particularly bad taste. It’s very easy to say measles are harmless when you’re a wealthy American or Austrailian with easy access to quality health care. However, it’s not so easy to say measles are harmless when you’re living in area with little access to vaccines or quality health care (World Health Organization, “Measles Fact Sheet”).
The anti-vaccine movement is not just scientifically inaccurate, although this is certainly the case as well (CNN, “Childhood vaccines are safe. Seriously.” 07.01.14). At the center of the anti-vaccine movement is a dangerous philosophy, one based upon the privilege of being wealthy enough to have access to high-quality health care. It poses an additional danger to autistic communities, who are traditionally looked down upon as the result of attitudes that are reflected in this movement.
Robert de Niro and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. aren’t just wrong, they’re ignorant, and that ignorance endangers the lives of millions of children. For someone with a cultural platform as broad and far-reaching as De Niro’s, the deliberate propagation of such anti-scientific, ableist rhetoric is disappointing and harmful.