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ScienceJuly 3, 2017

A message to Whakatāne about Vaxxed, from a microbiologist and parent

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Dr Siouxsie Wiles writes an open letter to the people of Whakatāne (and the rest of Aotearoa New Zealand*), where vaccination rates are dismal and an anti-vaxxer propaganda film is screening tonight.

As a parent, I know what it’s like to worry about whether you are doing the right thing for your child. When my daughter was born, I couldn’t quite believe that after just a few days in hospital we’d be going home in sole charge of a small infant. Didn’t they realise we were unqualified?!

Aside from giving her a name she wouldn’t hate us for, one of the first decisions we had to make was whether we would get our precious two-day-old baby vaccinated against TB, a nasty bacterial lung disease that was prevalent in the part of London where we lived. As it turns out, I’m a scientist, and TB is one of the diseases I study. But even though I knew what the TB bacterium does to the human body, and just how safe the vaccine is, it was still hard to stand by and watch my precious baby being pricked with a needle and injected with an actual bacterium, even one I knew wouldn’t harm her. How would she react? Would she get a fever? While I worried about that, the scientist in me also knew that a mild fever was a sign her body was doing what it was supposed to be doing – reacting to a relatively harmless foreign invader to protect her from the real deal.

As a parent, I understand that it can feel like not vaccinating is the safest thing to do. You’ve probably heard that some people say that vaccines contain mercury, and may cause autism. Isn’t it best to be on the safe side, and not put our children at risk? How bad can the diseases be anyway? The answer is pretty bad. Maybe your child will be all right, but the truth is that vaccine-preventable diseases can be devastating to the vulnerable people in your community. By vaccinating, you are helping to cast an incredible force field over your friends and neighbours. A forcefield that can stop many awful bacteria and viruses from infecting those most at risk, including babies too young to be vaccinated.

People of Whakatāne, there is a gaping hole in your region’s force field. Vaccination rates in your area have been steadily declining and you rank 35 out of 36 in the country for the number of children who are fully vaccinated.

I’ve just heard that the film Vaxxed is due to be shown at a Whakatāne cinema. I use the word film loosely, as Vaxxed is an emotive piece of anti-vaccination propaganda that will attempt to manipulate you into believing that there is a link between the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine and autism. This simply isn’t true. Many many studies, involving millions of children all over the world, have shown no link. Instead, researchers have found is that there are differences in the brains of children with autism well before the age they would receive the MMR vaccine.

What is true is that the man behind the film, Andrew Wakefield, started the MMR-autism scare. He carried out unethical research on sick children and lied about their medical records to make money and get his work published in a prestigious medical journal. That paper has now been retracted, and Wakefield struck off by the General Medical Council in the UK. If you have time, it’s well worth reading how investigative journalist Brian Deer uncovered the fraud, and the masses of money Wakefield made from it.

Maybe you’ve heard or read that Vaxxed isn’t an anti-vaccination film, but a documentary about a whistle-blower and corruption inside the United States’ Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In that case, if you choose to watch the film know that the sound recordings you will hear have been manipulated and the “whistle-blower” doesn’t stand by the film.

I understand that it can be hard to know who to trust.** Should you trust the people who endorse the film like the athlete and celebrity Allison Roe, an elected member of the Waitemata District Health Board, or Dr Mike Godfrey, a retired Mount Maunganui GP? Or should you trust Dr Lance O’Sullivan who took to the stage at the Kaitaia screening of the film, imploring people to vaccinate their children? The government-funded Immunisation Advisory Centre is also against the film.

If you are worried about vaccination, please don’t be swayed by Vaxxed. It isn’t telling you the truth. The overwhelming evidence is that vaccines, including the MMR vaccine, are safe and not linked to autism. The majority of paediatricians and doctors, as well as advocacy group Altogether Autism, support this position.

It’s time we stopped stigmatising people with autism and worked together to make sure no one in Aotearoa New Zealand is needlessly harmed by vaccine-preventable infectious diseases. Will you help?

With best wishes,


* Vaxxed screenings are also scheduled for Wellington, Queenstown, Whitianga, Hamilton and Te Kuiti.

** In reality, whom we trust and what we believe very much depends on our worldview and experiences. It’s worth checking out this excellent comic on how hard it is to believe things that challenge our worldview, as well as this short talk on how Facebook and the algorithms that personalise the internet for us influence how we see the world.

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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