It is reported that the UK’s East End film festival withdrew Man Made Epidemic after a petition from no more than six people who had not seen it. I do not know who the six signatories were but this sounds more like a surface event. I have no doubt that the powers that be (and “still are” even after Brexit) let it be known that festival organisers would have cause to regret their decision if it was shown – nor would it surprise me if some quasi government agency like Science Media Centre or Sense About Science was behind it. For one performance only, the film premiered at a cinema in London’s West End at 12.30 in the afternoon, so as not to get in anyone’s way.
It should be said that the most polemical bit of Natalie Beer’s film is the title, except that by now saying anything critical about vaccine products is enough to bring down the wrath of the institutional heavens. Beer set out as a mother to investigate what the safest course for her children would be, and obtained interview footage from many quarters (it is said over a thousand hours edited down to an hour and a half). No one is caricatured or ridiculed, nor does she decide not to vaccinate, but rather to proceed with extreme caution. The impression is that even with a polite and deferential approach the reality that things were not quite as they should be was inescapable – the autism epidemic could not be explained away. Beer had found more than was comfortable.
Perhaps the most revealing interviews are with Jan Leidel, the chair of the German vaccine committee, and Thomas Breuer, GSK Senior Vice President, Head of Vaccine Value and Health Science. What shows is not so much any open fanaticism but the sense simply that they needed more convincing answers if they were to proceed with making recommendations or selling their products. Breuer could not maintain convincingly that their products never caused injury – in the context he was just like any industrial executive, who is never going to admit anything unless he is forced to in a court of law or something. Beer does not tackle him like an aggressive attorney, but the fact that his assurances mean little seems all too manifest.
Like a lot of people Breuer is just doing his job. The fanaticism is often left to the people who know much less: the public relations people, the media, the politicians. What would it mean if we ever questioned policy like Andrew Wakefield ( who also appears in the film)? Beer stated during panel questions after the showing that she did not have any idea what she was getting into when she started to make the film – she did not know it was “taboo” (and of course with taboo comes totem). But if it is something we are not allowed to talk about it or enquire into it certainly is not science either: something much more like social repression or even superstition.
An interesting episode was Beer’s visit to pharmaceutical company Cilian AG. Cilian’s claim is that they can make safe vaccines with “pure ingredients” – without toxic excipients or adjuvants - but not at a popular price. Are these new luxury consumables for the market that can afford Mercs and Jags? Well possibly, but it is not the super-rich who are at most risk from infectious disease. I seem to remember that Bill Gates once inadvertently remarking that his circle of friends could quite easily manage without vaccines, but it is my guess that even much cleaned up vaccines will still be a messy business. The real enemy of infectious diseases are decent living conditions, nutrition, sanitation, fresh water.
If this was the first screening of Man Made Epidemic in a cinema it was most likely the last too. The plan is to make it available on-line with a pay wall to cover costs. It is certainly well worth seeing and contains a vintage cameo from Paul Shattock. It is 19 years since Paul came to talk to us at our local church hall in North London, and his message in the session after the film was still the same – it is ordinary people who have to do something about this. We have to believe despite everything that our time is coming. Beer’s film shows just how thin is the charade.
John Stone is UK Editor for Age of Autism.