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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Letter to President Tajani regarding EU parliament screening of anti-vaccine documentary 'Vaxxed'

Andrew Wakefield's discredited ideas are again getting an airing in the form of the documentary 'Vaxxed', despite it being utterly condemned by critics and scientists alike as a cauldron of abject nonsense. It was due to be screened in London recently, but after pressure from the general public and people like Fiona O'Leary, Dr Adam Rutherford and myself, it was pulled. However, due to an invite from a French MEP, it is due to screen in the European parliament on February 9th 2017, with questions fielded by Wakefield himself. This is an absolutely terrible idea, and only an intervention by President Antonio Tajani can circumvent the screening and potentially halt a renewed public health crisis. Below is my letter to President Tajani, and I encourage you to send your own too.  

Dear President Tajani,

       My name is Dr. David Robert Grimes, a physicist, cancer researcher and science writer. I am contacting your office to draw your attention to a most odious event that is set to occur at the European parliament. On the 9th of February, MEP Michele Ravasi of the French Greens has arranged a screening of the ostensible documentary ‘Vaxxed’ at the European Parliament. In this letter, I seek to implore you to cancel this event on grounds of public health and scientific veracity, for reasons I am happy to articulate below.  I will go as far as to state bluntly that allowing this screening to take place is tantamount to endangering public health.

‘Vaxxed’ is supposedly a documentary which claims there is a conspiracy to supress the dangers of vaccination. But in reality, it is little more than a propaganda film for anti-vaccination tropes that have long been debunked, and a vanity project for director Andrew Wakefield [1]. Wakefield, as you may recall, is the disgraced doctor behind the late 1990s panic regarding the Measles-Mumps-Rubella vaccine. His thoroughly discredited assertion that the vaccine was linked to autism fuelled a mass panic, and vaccine rates plummeted well below the threshold for herd immunity [2].

The net result was a needless crisis of confidence, which in turn lead to a spate of outbreaks and deaths – a consequence we in Europe still feel today. Wakefield’s downfall is also well-documented – his frightening claims were later shown to utterly falsified, and his own financial conflict of interest and ethical failures make for alarming reason. His Lancet study which ignited the deadly panic was found to be wholly flawed, and was retracted. Wakefield himself was struck off the medical register for his appalling conduct [3].

In ‘Vaxxed’, these tired claims are aired afresh, but are completely devoid of any evidence. Indeed, we are still wrestling with the human cost of the last needless panic, and other related scare claims, which among other things have driven the rates of HPV vaccination in countries like Ireland down. It is frankly irresponsible to give these discredited views an airing in the European parliament; to do so is essentially an endorsement of these deadly views.

Those defending the screening might argue it is only to ‘hear both sides’ but this is patent false balance [4] – the scientific consensus on vaccination is buttressed by vast swatches of evidence showing safety and efficacy, whilst the anti-vaccine position pivots on bogus claims and scaremongering. It is completely disingenuous to present these positions are equal, or as worthy of debate, in much the same way we would refuse to entertain a holocaust denier.

Ultimately, if the event is to go ahead it will leave a false impression in the public mind that vaccines are somehow scientifically contentious, or that there is some nefarious cover-up [5] - claims which couldn’t be further from the truth. I know that autistic rights advocate Fiona O’Leary has been in contact with Ravasi’s office who were unwilling to cancel the event, and that we have been advised only the President’s office might be able to intervene. I plead with you here to not give these ugly falsehoods the superficial veneer of credibility by allowing them to be aired in as vital an institution as the European parliament.

As a scientist who writes extensively for the general public, I feel that political assemblies play an important role in shaping discussions on public health. And from having long covered the various incarnations of the anti-vaccination movement (including being unlucky enough to debate Wakefield and other prominent anti-vaccine activists) I can assure you that these movements will view even a modicum of political attention as a major coup, and use it to drive their agenda. Please do not give them the oxygen of publicity and illusion of respectability they crave – we measure the cost of doing so in innocent lives.


    David Robert Grimes

PS: I understand completely that with the torrent of misinformation that surrounds the subject, it can be difficult to separate the signal from the noise. I would be more than happy to lend my expertise if it helps, and to put you in touch with relevant experts and scientific literature if more information is sought. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any queries. I would also be grateful if you could acknowledge receipt of this e-mail. 

Notes and references

[1] ‘Vaxxed’ was widely panned as scientifically illiterate and fundamentally dishonest. This review in the Guardian by Dr. Philip La Russa is just one damning review of both the film and Wakefield’s conduct and claims - 

[3] For background, the GMC ruling is especially damning, as is the editorial by British Medical Journal editor Prof. Fiona Godlee.

[4] False balance is a persistent problem in scientific reporting – if the evidence is overwhelming for one side, is it completely wrong-headed to present opposing views as ‘equal’ merely because they’re opposite. Yet this plagues issues like climate-change and vaccination. I have covered why this is an issue and must be avoided in more detail for the Guardian here.

[5] The medical claims in ‘Vaxxed’ are readily debunked, as outlined in [1] above. Claims of some over-arching conspiracy are completely without grounds – at even a conservative estimate, a vaccination conspiracy would require the complicity of tens of thousands of scientists, doctors and health officials and would be completely unworkable. I explored the viability of such a claim in an academic paper on conspiracy stability last year, and even with assumptions generous to conspirators such an operation is extremely unlikely to ever occur.

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