The documentary Vaxxed II: The People’s Truth, released Nov. 6, asks viewers to decide: Do you believe vaccine science is settled? Or is testimony of injury by thousands of parents enough evidence to warrant further inquiry?
Executive producer of Vaxxed II, Polly Tommey, is one of those thousands of parents. She believes her son, Billy, became autistic as a result of a measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination in 1998. She made the film because, “I thought it was our duty as parents to warn future parents that they need to do their research because of what happened to us.”
Vaxxed II, whose other executive producer is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is a compilation of stories selected from the thousands that Tommey and her team heard while on tour for the first Vaxxed movie. These are stories of parents who took healthy children in for their vaccinations and noticed sudden and dramatic changes in them shortly thereafter. In many cases, these changes were the onset of a life-long condition.
The Vaxxed films have been controversial and highly censored. The first movie primarily looked at the story of a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) senior scientist, Dr. William Thompson, who said he and his team altered a major vaccine safety study, erasing evidence of an association between the MMR vaccine and autism among African American boys.
The movie has been removed from streaming on Amazon Prime and Vimeo. Its DVDs are no longer sold on Amazon and it was pulled from the line-up at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016. Facebook and Instagram have stifled in various ways Vaxxed-related content.
To release Vaxxed II, the filmmakers had to get creative to avoid the censored channels. They had more than 100 volunteer venues host screenings. Over 260 more are scheduled for this month.
The Vaxxed movies have been summed up in many media reports as promoting a “widely debunked” claim that a link exists between vaccines and autism. Media reports openly label it as “dubious,” and “pseudoscience,” and “anti-vaccine propaganda.”
Yet the debunking of serious adverse effects from vaccination may not be as thorough as sometimes reported, as we will explore in more detail later. For now, one example of how some experts view the matter comes from the testimony of Dr. Stanley Plotkin, one of the world’s most prominent vaccinologists, in a court case on vaccination last year. While under oath, he was pressed to say definitively whether the statement “vaccines don’t cause autism” is true.
He replied, “I cannot say that as a scientist or a logician.” However, he said that he would tell parents that “vaccines don’t cause autism” because “as a physician, I have to take the whole body of information into consideration when I make a recommendation for a child.”
He would tell parents there’s no link even though he’s not certain of that, because he believes the known benefits of vaccines outweigh the unknown risks.
Many Americans, even those who vaccinate their children, are concerned about vaccine safety, according to a 2011 study. Yet public health officials say vaccines are safe and the danger lies in people losing confidence in them and refusing to vaccinate, leading to outbreaks of contagious disease.
On both sides of the vaccination issue, people feel that one child’s death, or one child’s severe illness, is one too many.
It’s against this backdrop that parents, such as Brenda and David MacDowell, whose story is highlighted in Vaxxed II, struggled to find help at a heart-wrenching time. When their triplets exhibited a horrifying change within a few hours of receiving a pneumococcal vaccine, their concerns were dismissed and even treated with hostility.
A Scream, Then a Vacant Stare
The triplets—one girl and two boys—were 9 months old when they received the vaccine in Macomb County, Michigan, in 2007.
Their daughter was vaccinated first and started crying uncontrollably with a high-pitched, shrill scream. The doctors told Mrs. McDowell that it was normal and continued to vaccinate the two boys, who also started crying although not with the same intensity as their sister.
Two hours after the shot, Mrs. McDowell watched her daughter shut down.
“It was like somebody had taken her soul; her personality was gone,” Mrs. McDowell said in an interview with The Epoch Times. It was like she was blind and deaf; she didn’t respond to her mother’s voice or face.
The boys followed the same course. All three lost their reflexes. Mrs. McDowell is an educational audiologist, and so she tested their auditory responses. Muscles in the inner ear should contract involuntarily at loud sounds, but these muscles had stopped working in all three children.
The only advice the local health department gave her that day when she called was to alternate doses of Tylenol and Motrin and to keep an eye on them. She recalled the nurse telling her that the babies were probably having a reaction to the vaccine but would probably be fine.
When several days had passed and the triplets had not recovered, the McDowells went to their pediatrician’s office where several doctors examined the babies. Mrs. McDowell recalled that one of them said the triplets were “most likely” having a reaction to the vaccine, but only time would tell how serious it was.
At the same appointment, other doctors asked if the McDowells planned to continue vaccinations.
No doctor at the practice offered them treatment. Not long after the appointment, the McDowells received a letter stating that their family would no longer be welcome in the practice if they didn’t continue to vaccinate.
The triplets have been officially diagnosed as autistic, with severe symptoms including two of them being non-verbal.
Vaccines to Blame?
The McDowells’ story is not an unusual one. Many parents report similar sudden changes in their children after vaccinations.
Critics of such stories say that the emergence of autism symptoms at the time of vaccination is a coincidence; that the children would have had autism and would have started to show signs at that age regardless of vaccination.
Sudden changes parents have reported after vaccination aren’t limited to autism in toddlers. Tommey said in every place the Vaxxed team stopped, they heard of children dying after vaccination. Vaxxed II has stories of teenagers becoming paralyzed after human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines.
Some critics have said that parents are eager to find an answer to the emotionally charged question “Why did this happen to my child?” And blaming vaccines helps provide that answer.
Surgeon Dr. David Gorski, a prominent vaccine proponent and “debunker” of vaccine concerns, wrote in a blog post about the stories in Vaxxed II and similar anecdotal evidence, “The cases exploited by antivaxxers are tragic, and the stories told heart-breaking. … Discussing such stories requires care and tact, because inevitably any skeptical look at the narrative being promoted by the antivaccine movement will be portrayed as an attack on the dead child and his grieving family.”
Such skeptical looks often cite studies denying the link between vaccines and adverse effects.
The CDC cites several studies on a webpage about vaccine safety. A couple that it particularly highlights are the 2011 Institute of Medicine (now called the National Academy of Medicine) report and a 2013 study by CDC.
The 2011 report states that evidence favors the rejection of an MMR vaccine-autism causal link. It did find that some of the eight vaccines included in the study are likely to cause anaphylaxis, a potentially deadly allergic reaction, in a small number of cases.
And for the majority of other vaccine concerns, “the evidence was inadequate to accept or reject a causal relationship.”
This kind of inconclusive finding is the crux of many parental concerns because lack of evidence of harm is not the same as proof of safety.
In 2017, a pilot study that surveyed parents of both vaccinated and unvaccinated homeschooled children was published. The study focused on homeschooled children as a way to compare similar groups of children, thus suggesting the key factor in any major health changes would be vaccination. The study, which has been criticized by pro-vaccine blogs, found an association between vaccines and allergies and neurodevelopmental disorders. The study was small but further raised concerns among parents.
In at least one case, in 2010, the government did acknowledge that a round of vaccinations aggravated a mitochondrial disorder and “resulted in” (rather than “caused”) autism in a little girl, Hannah Poling. It awarded her family more than $1.5 million in compensation. Pharmaceutical companies cannot be sued for alleged vaccine reactions, so a federal court handles cases.
A Doctor’s View
Dr. Suzanne Humphries, a science advisor to Vaxxed II, described in an interview with The Epoch Times the evolution in her thinking that led to her to be concerned about vaccines.
She said in medical school, she was taught to listen to patients and trust them. She was not taught how vaccines work or what is in them. So when she heard people saying they had severe vaccine reactions, she listened and became more curious about how vaccines work.
One patient developed shingles shortly after she got a shingles vaccine. A woman who worked in the food service department of a hospital Humphries worked at required dialysis for years because of a condition that emerged directly after an MMR vaccination.
When two other patients said to her, “I was fine until I had that vaccine,” she decided to do some research and spent the next eight years buried in medical literature on immunology and vaccines. From that research came a book about the history of vaccines and the conviction that vaccines should be a choice adults make for themselves, not a mandated treatment for children.
She herself once became violently ill after a flu vaccine and saw her health decline after a series of four hepatitis B vaccines. She didn’t think to connect the hep B vaccines with her health decline until years later when she’d done a lot more research.
Because of her experiences, she understands that it’s hard for people—parents, patients, and doctors—to connect adverse health events with vaccines.
She also said that it’s confounding to the medical community that many of the people with concerns are highly educated parents.
“It’s educated, science-minded people, who have done their own investigation and they are able to eloquently describe why they don’t want to be vaccinated, better than any doctor can describe why they should.”
Tommey said that many of the doctors who wanted the team to interview them were Christians who felt their faith required that they speak out about their concerns even if it came at great personal cost.
The Whistleblower, the Blackout
A storm of controversy has followed Dr. Thompson, the CDC scientist whose story started Vaxxed in the first place. His claim that he and his colleagues found a link between MMR and autism in African American boys has been refuted by subsequent studies. Though at least one other scientist, Dr. Brian Hooker, confirmed his results in a much-contested study.
Thompson obtained whistleblower status and Congressman Bill Posey of Florida, who reviewed his files, testified in the House in 2015 that the matter should be investigated. The Epoch Times is not aware that any actions have been taken since and Posey’s office did not respond before press time.
What caught the attention of Del Bigtree, a journalist and one of the producers of Vaxxed, was the apparent media blackout on Thompson’s initial disclosure.
He told The Epoch Times in an interview last March that he decided to quit his job and make the documentary after he saw that the story was not being covered. “It was clear there was a media blackout on this story. That really sparked my curiosity,” he said.
“When no side of the story is being covered on something that big, it seems to me that someone has been told to not cover it,” he said. “And still to this day I wonder how high up that went.”
Vaxxed II is directed by Brian Burrowes and produced by Polly Tommey’s son, Tobias Tommey.