Robert De Niro Sticks Up for Anti-Vaxx Documentary

Even though Vaxxed was pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival, Robert De Niro is still encouraging people to see it.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Vaccines. Don’t. Cause. Autism.

Is there any uncertainty in that statement? Should I rephrase it for greater clarity? Is there some potential for drawing an erroneous conclusion?

I ask because there still seems to be some confusion about this question, and fame appears to be a particular risk factor.

Most recently, the famous person falling into a black hole where facts have no meaning was Robert De Niro. In an appearance on the Today show this morning, the acclaimed actor and co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival defended the festival’s initial decision to screen the film Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe. While the screening was eventually pulled, De Niro seemed to express regret at that decision, urged people to see the film, and regurgitated much of the long-debunked content the movie presents linking vaccines to autism.

De Niro is utterly, unambiguously wrong here.

It was a terrible mistake to consider screening Vaxxed in the first place. As I wrote before the film was nixed from the lineup, the film’s director is Andrew Wakefield, author of the seminal study linking vaccines (specifically the measles, mumps, rubella [MMR] vaccine) and autism. Except that study has been exposed as fraudulent, was retracted by the journal that published it, and Wakefield has been stripped of his license to practice medicine in the U.K., his home country.

The film waves these petty details away, as though being called “an elaborate fraud” and excoriated by your country’s medical board for gross ethical lapses are no big deals. But of course, they are big deals indeed.

Furthermore, they are not obscure little bits of information tucked into the archives of unknown medical societies. It takes all of 30 seconds on Google to find high-profile coverage of these events when they happened. I don’t know what expectations of due diligence a film festival is expected to meet, but including a documentary helmed by a notorious charlatan is a gross failure of even the laxest standards.

But there De Niro was, sticking up for the film all the same.

To their credit, the program’s hosts made an effort to push back against the two-time Oscar winner’s assertions that vaccines have harmed people. But he was having none of it, pronouncing that nobody is seriously investigating the supposed dangers of vaccines, insinuating some nefarious plot at the Centers for Disease Control, and mentioning thimerosal (a preservative for vaccines almost never used now) as a particular risk.

Every single word of that is nonsense.

For a sense of perspective, it’s important to note that Wakefield’s now-retracted study involved 12 total subjects. An investigation later reported that data about every single one had been altered or misrepresented in some way. By way of contrast, one study of Finnish children confirming the safety of the MMR vaccine followed 1.8 million children over a period of 14 years. Another study out of Denmark that showed similar findings included over half a million children.

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And before anyone mutters something about the sinister machinations of the CDC, I would politely point out that American public health agencies don’t have a lot of sway in Scandinavia.

Further studies have shown that even for children at higher risk of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because of an older sibling with the diagnosis, there is no increased risk due to the MMR vaccine. The only way to conclude that nobody is honestly addressing this question is to pay no serious attention whatsoever.

As for thimerosal, it makes a piss-poor explanation for the rise in ASD diagnoses in this country. Not only have studies demonstrated its safety for use, but out of an overabundance of caution it was pulled from all vaccines in 2001, except some flu immunizations. Despite this change, ASDs have been diagnosed at increasing rates in recent years. Whatever explanation one may make for this rise, it ain’t thimerosal.

But of course, it only does so much good for scientists and physicians to say the same things over and over. De Niro is much more famous than I am, a statement so obvious as to render saying it absurd. Because of his celebrity, many more people are likely to hear what he has to say than people like me, and many will take it to heart. For those who do, and opt out of vaccinating themselves of their children, not only will their own health be undermined, but our collective protection against preventable diseases will be eroded as well.

I would happily sit down with De Niro, pause Vaxxed at any moment of his choosing, and rebut every single point he cares to mention. (I am willing to do this despite Meet the Fockers.) And there is a perfectly good, accurate movie about vaccines for people who want to watch one.

But it is lamentable that once again a celebrity has cast in his lot with people willing to ignore, deny, or even misrepresent medical science. De Niro’s comments not only shake his credibility as an arbiter of quality documentary films, they have the potential to make our country less safe from disease.