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ASU Autism Professor Promotes Anti-Vaccine Film Despite Doctors' Protests

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An Arizona State University autism researcher is encouraging parents to see a controversial film alleging a connection between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the neurological disorder — despite widespread consensus that the premise is scientifically flawed.

James Adams, director of ASU’s Autism/Asperger’s Research Program initially posted an advertisement without commentary for “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” which is showing at select Harkins Theatres this week, on an official university Facebook page. But after receiving a barrage of negative comments, Adams edited the post to include a disclaimer noting that the movie “represents only one side of the MMR-vaccine controversy.”

Vaxxed was produced by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the infamous British researcher who lost his medical license after publishing the now-retracted 1998 study that ignited the autism-vaccine debate. As a result of Wakefield’s work, vaccine rates have plummeted in Europe and the United States, contributing to a comeback of dangerous diseases such as measles.

While the vast majority of mainstream scientists, led by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, argue that there is “no link” between the MMR vaccine and autism, Adams wrote, the movie raises questions about the “validity of some of the official studies.” In particular, the film claims to feature a former scientist with the CDC who says he helped manipulate data to cover up evidence of an association.

“I have not seen the movie, so cannot give an opinion about it, but I am posting about it so you can decide if you want to hear from Dr. Wakefield’s side,” he wrote.

After just a few hours, Adams removed the post altogether at ASU's request.

ASU spokesman Mark Johnson told New Times that policy prohibits professors from using ASU computer resources "for fund-raising or advertising on behalf of non-ASU organizations.

"The Facebook post was a personal statement but was made under the ASU banner," he said. "School officials asked that it be removed because it could have been misconstrued as the university’s endorsement of a commercial film."

Adams is still promoting the film in his capacity as the president of the Autism Society of Greater Phoenix.

Adams does not describe himself as “anti-vaccine,” but, he said to New Times, he believes vaccines can have dangerous side effects and, in “rare cases,” may cause autism. He argues that parents should “understand the pros and cons” before making decisions about their children’s health care.

“The CDC has two conflicting missions: a mission to get every child vaccinated and a mission to determine if vaccines are dangerous,” he said. “So now we have an agency telling everyone ‘vaccines are very safe, take them,’ but, at the same time, they’re removing vaccines from the market because they are unsafe.”

Many doctors, however, decry Wakefield’s work as pseudo-science and argue his film is not about education, but fear-mongering.

“There are not two sides to this story,” said Tucson-based pediatrician Dr. Chris Hickie. “The science is settled: vaccines don’t cause autism. To continue talking about this as if there’s a question is like continuing to argue that the world is flat or the Holocaust didn’t happen.”

Harkins Theatres chose to screen the film despite push-back from prominent members of the medical community, which worries it may discourage parents from protecting their children and the community.

The Arizona Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Arizona Partnership for Immunization, a nonprofit public-private partnership that aims to increase vaccination rates, asked the theater to cancel the showings, Dr. Mary Riszma, a member of the AAP’s board of directors, wrote in an e-mail obtained by New Times.

Both organizations have been outspoken about their support for vaccines being safe and effective.

The film was originally slated to run in the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, but was pulled from the lineup March 27 after festival co-founder Robert De Niro announced he had consulted with members of the scientific community and determined that “we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion” about vaccine safety.

Dr. Hickie condemned Harkins' decision to screen the film, and Adam’s attempt to use his position at ASU to promote it as “highly irresponsible” and “damaging.”

“It’s frustrating, because I am sure I’m going to have people in my office quoting this movie, and vaccination rates are going to go down,” he said. “People know vaccination is the right thing to do, but they get scared. Spreading this kind of misinformation doesn’t help.”   

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