The Television Critics Association session for the experts involved with PBS and WGBH’s upcoming “Nova” doc “Vaccines – Calling the Shots” started off as combative — Paul Offit, the chief of the division of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, responded to a journalist’s question about whether parents who don’t vaccinate their kids “are idiots” by saying these people are “making a bad and misinformed choice” and that it’s “a terrible decision that comes with terrible consequence” — but the documentary does address various opinions.
Documentary filmmaker Sonya Pemberton, who is producing the project with Tangled Bank Studios, said that although she comes from a scientific background, she wanted to be able show a healthy dialogue in her film.
“I spent about a year talking to many, many parents … I saw the whole spectrum, and what became clear to me is that we had this false polarity of us versus them; people who were for vaccination and people who were against,” she said. “In my experience, and with the data it is clear, about 90% plus of parents in the United States vaccinate … We have this artificial sense that there’s a big divide, but what I was interested in the 50-odd percent or so, depending on what study you look at, who have questions about vaccines, who have concerns about vaccines. And the journey I traveled with the film is to have a respectful conversation with those parents.”
She said the film’s stories range from outbreaks to risk assessment so that “we try and take people on this journey” to understand that science supports vaccinations.
The panelists also discussed Internet misinformation, such as fears that HPV vaccinations will make teens promiscuous or citations of Andrew Wakefield’s now-disproven 1998 study that claimed to show a link between MMR vaccinations and autism (“The Internet is a source of great and awful information,” Offit said), and anti-vaccination spokespeople like Jenny McCarthy.
“I think Jenny McCarthy has done a lot of harm and continues to do a lot of harm,” said Alison Singer, president, Autism Science Foundation. “I think she continues to put children at risk by failing to acknowledge what the data clearly say and when confronted with the data, her response is I don’t care what the data show, I know in my heart that when my son received the MMR the light left his eyes and he became autistic. Those are very powerful. Those anecdotes are what get you on ‘Oprah.’” … What Jenny McCarthy likes to say is show me the study that proves vaccines don’t cause autism. And there will never be a study that proves a study that vaccines don’t cause autism because science does not work that way. You cannot prove the negative.”
Pemberton said she does not mention McCarthy because the actress and TV hostess is not “scientifically qualified” and also only briefly concentrates on the Wakefield study in her film. Instead, she chose to focus on the new information that autism develops in the second month of pregnancy. She also said she “put an awful lot of effort into not making it a dreary film.”
“Fundamentally, the vaccine story is a good news story,” she said, adding: “We had some fun with the graphics. We were able to go back in time and tell you the story of how vaccines emerged at least 1,000 years ago … the fundamental structure is a global story with the emphasis on America and using case studies and individual people to illuminate the core ideas of science.”
“Vaccines – Calling the Shots” premieres at 9 p.m. on September 10.