Robert De Niro Wants ‘A Dialogue’ About Anti-Vaxxing at Tribeca Film Festival

It’s personal to him, but it could be dangerous for everyone else.

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Mar 26 2016, 4:00pm

Image: David Shankbone/Wikipedia

Update: Robert De Niro has announced that upon further consideration, the Tribeca Film Festival will not screen "Vaxxed: From Fraud to Catastrophe," an anti-vaccination documentary directed the father of the controversial anti-vaxxer movement.

De Niro also released the following statement:

"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.

The Festival doesn't seek to avoid or shy away from controversy. However, we have concerns with certain things in this film that we feel prevent us from presenting it in the Festival program. We have decided to remove it from our schedule."

The original article is below.

A screening at the Tribeca Film Festival is stirring controversy among scientifically-minded observers.

"Vaxxed: From Fraud to Catastrophe" an anti-vaccination documentary directed by Andrew Wakefield, an established fraud and the father of the controversial anti-vaxxer movement, is scheduled to play at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 24.

The film's description in the Tribeca program reads: "Digging into the long-debated link between autism and vaccines, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe features revealing and emotional interviews with pharmaceutical insiders, doctors, politicians, parents, and one whistleblower to understand what's behind the skyrocketing increase of autism diagnoses today."

In "Vaxxed," Wakefield says the CDC has been covering up the link between autism and vaccination through data manipulation and omission of crucial information, data which he says undermined his original body of research.

The fact that the festival is screening what some call a piece of dangerous propaganda that puts children at risk, plus the fact that the film festival's marketing materials seemed to take the filmmakers at their word, is causing a wave of criticism.

Kyle Hill, science editor at Nerdist, started tweeting about the film on Wednesday and was still tweeting about the issue up until the time of writing.

Robert De Niro, who cofounded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2002 and has a child with autism, published a statement on Friday in response to the criticism.

"[Autism] is very personal to me and my family and I want there to be a discussion, which is why we will be screening VAXXED," he said. "I am not personally endorsing the film, nor am I anti-vaccination; I am only providing the opportunity for a conversation around the issue."

The Tribeca spokespeople had similar sentiments. "We are a forum, not a judge," they told the LA Times.

Additionally the description for the film on Tribeca's page has no disclaimers on how dangerous of an idea anti-vaxxing is.

"Mr. Wakefield will claim he and he alone knows the answer to autism, that he has been suppressed and harassed by the medical community because of his knowledge," Kyle Hill told me in an email. "But we've looked at his ideas, checked them almost more times than there are words in his study, and found nothing."

The fear that vaccinations could be the direct cause of that autism is why parents avoid getting their kids inoculated, leaving them vulnerable to crippling and deadly diseases. This is all based on Wakefield's original paper, published in The Lancet in 1998, which drew lines between mumps, measles, and rubella vaccinations and incidences of autism in 8 of 12 children he surveyed. Since then, there have been reams of studies, all of which failed to yield any scientific evidence linking autism and vaccination.

The British Medical Journal didn't formally retract Wakefield's paper until 2010 (after which, Wakefield was called "unethical," "dishonest," and "irresponsible"), but the damage to public health had already been done.

The World Health Organization reported 114,900 measles deaths in 2014 worldwide, and 100,000 rubella cases worldwide—most, if not all of which could have been prevented by vaccination. And what's more, the New York Times said it might have been too little too late. Even the retraction of his paper wouldn't bring down his reputation significantly among parents' groups in the US.

And while inoculation has saved millions of lives, the cause for autism is remains extremely murky, leaving enough doubt that Wakefield could use to further his cause.

That's in part because autism is a spectrum, or collection of behaviors and disorders. You can link these disorders to any number of factors: genetics, the mother's metabolic health during pregnancy, or even over a hundred mutated genes that scientists say can cause autism. But because there's no clear-cut answer, anti-vaxxers opt for the simplest: that MMR vaccinations are to blame.

"Unfortunately, there will be a non-zero number of people who will leave the Tribeca Film Festival believing that almost every doctor on the planet is wrong, and one disgraced doctor is right," Hill said."The credence Tribeca lends to Mr. Wakefield could spark a public health crisis, like he has done before."

Here is De Niro's statement in full:

"Grace and I have a child with autism and we believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined. In the 15 years since the Tribeca Film Festival was founded, I have never asked for a film to be screened or gotten involved in the programming. However this is very personal to me and my family and I want there to be a discussion, which is why we will be screening VAXXED. I am not personally endorsing the film, nor am I anti-vaccination; I am only providing the opportunity for a conversation around the issue."