Framed in a display case outside Sacramento’s Tower Theatre, the poster for “Vaxxed” could be mistaken for a horror movie advertisement. The title is scrawled across a black backdrop, an eye-catching red X at its center. Below it, a single syringe emits an eerie blue substance meant to represent the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.
In front of the cinema Friday, a handful of local supporters of the film sipped their coffees as they waited to buy tickets to the documentary about the unproven link between the MMR vaccine and autism, directed by discredited researcher Andrew Wakefield.
Michelle Foster, a 28-year-old Sacramento mom, wore a T-shirt for Learn the Risk, an advocacy group that claims vaccines are unsafe. She called herself and others “believers” of the film’s message.
“It should be a personal choice,” she said of vaccinations for children. “It’s important that our lawmakers can come see (the film) and that the people have a chance to see it.”
“Vaxxed,” which will play at the Tower four times per day through Thursday, accuses the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of covering up supposed negative side effects of the MMR shot.
It features interviews with Wakefield, the British former gastroenterologist who authored the widely criticized 1998 Lancet article linking vaccines to autism. The Lancet retracted the article and the British General Medical Council revoked Wakefield’s license in 2010. His work has been thoroughly debunked by the medical community over the last decade.
“It’s disappointing that anyone would offer a fraud a platform to perpetuate his lies,” said state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, pediatrician and co-author of California’s recently passed vaccine legislation. “Lies that actually harm the health of the public and put children and families at risk for a serious disease.”
The film’s arrival in Sacramento opens a new chapter in California’s vaccine debate, which heated up after the Disneyland measles outbreak in early 2015. Many blamed the spread of the previously controlled disease on parents who chose not to vaccinate their children and on the “anti-vaxxers” who oppose vaccination requirements.
Since then Gov. Jerry Brown has signed SB277, which eliminates the religious and personal belief exemptions that formerly allowed parents to skip vaccines. Opponents swiftly launched attempts to repeal the law, which still stands and will be implemented in the coming school year.
Pan worries that “Vaxxed” will further spread misinformation and scare parents away from getting their children vaccinated.
“The thing to remember is that this is a film that’s directed by a man who was found to falsify a study,” he said. “This is essentially a propaganda film by Andrew Wakefield, about Andrew Wakefield. It’s him trying to imply that what he faked might still be true.”
The documentary is set to show in about a dozen cities across the U.S. It was originally slated for the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, but festival founder Robert De Niro pulled it from the lineup, citing concerns about its content that arose after he spoke with members of the scientific community.
Wakefield will appear at the Tower for a filmmaker’s Q&A on Sunday and “Vaxxed” is the feature image on the cinema’s weekly brochure. Managers at the theater said they could not comment on the film’s run, and representatives at Reading International, the corporation that owns the Tower Theatre, did not return calls for comment.
The 90-minute documentary, funded largely by Wakefield, opens with narration from CDC whistleblower William Thompson, who does not appear in the film and whose phone calls, used repeatedly throughout, were recorded without his permission. What follows is a detailed explanation of what filmmakers call a cover-up of the supposed link between vaccines and autism. Interviews with researchers and psychologists are inserted between footage of children with developmental disabilities, whose parents claim they developed symptoms after receiving the MMR vaccine.
It ends with a list of political demands for viewers to pose to policymakers, including that all vaccines undergo stricter safety testing. Wakefield said that the film is not anti-vaccination.
“The movie is saying that vaccine safety is paramount, and the CDC cannot be trusted to do vaccine safety research,” he said. “Where there is risk there has to be choice. It’s up to parents to decide the risks they’re prepared to take on behalf of their children.”
Ryan Cristián, a Sacramento resident who attended the Friday screening, said he would be returning to the Tower to hear Wakefield speak.
“The man has lost everything for this film,” he said. “He’s a native of England, and he’s doing more for this country than people that are trying to keep this film from being seen. He’s fighting for the health of the American people.”
Leah Russin, a Palo Alto mother who advocates for widespread vaccination with Vaccinate California, said “Vaxxed” is just one more in a series of “conspiracy type movies” that serve as “fundraising gambits for the anti-vax establishment.”
“They sadly serve two purposes – one is to line the pockets of those who seek to profit from parental fear, and the other is to threaten public health,” she said. “The people who are resistant to vaccinating are people who love their children very deeply, and are acting on something primal. The problem is they’re doing it based on a misguided perception of the world. They’re misunderstanding science.