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23 Sep 2016

A controversial film that claims US health authorities are covering up evidence linking a vaccine to autism has been withdrawn from screening at a central Victorian film festival.

The Castlemaine Local and International Film Festival has decided to dump the controversial show Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe following widespread calls, including from AMA President Dr Michael Gannon, for it to be scrapped from the festival’s line-up.

Late last month, Dr Gannon called on organisers of the festival to dump the film because it made claims about the safety of vaccines that had been thoroughly discredited, could undermine efforts to protect children against infectious diseases and might add to distress and hardship for parents of children with autism and.

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.

But actor Robert De Niro pulled it from screening at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival amid widespread criticism, and the organisers of the Castlemaine Local and International Film Festival (CLIFF) have now followed suit.

The organisers, who had initially resisted calls to dump the film, said in a statement reported by the Bendigo Advertiser that they had decided to acquiesce to pressure because some had felt “personally and professionally threatened”.

“This is unacceptable. It is with the utmost regret, therefore, the CLIFF is compelled, for clear reasons of personal and public safety, to withdraw the screening from the CLIFF 2016 programme,” the organisers said in a statement.

The decision came amid strong criticism by Victorian Health Minister Jill Hennessy, Dr Gannon and other health experts of the claims made in the film.

Dr Gannon said assertions made in Vaxxed 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.”

Ms Hennessy said it was important to challenge the myths peddled by anti-vaccination campaigners.

“We've got to keep challenging the anti-science myth pedalling that goes on around vaccination and a film that goes out there to say ‘vaccinations aren't safe’ is really, really unhelpful, particularly in communities where the vaccination rates are in many circumstances lower than what the state average is,” Ms Hennessy said.

 “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 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 rigorous 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

Published: 23 Sep 2016