DeNiro was right — we need to have a conversation about vaccines just not the one he started

Although he later decided not to allow the controversial film Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe to premiere at the prestigious Tribeca film festival, initially, Robert DeNiro defended his decision saying that since his son was affected by autism, he wanted to start a conversation. The film, created by the discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield, continues the scientifically disproven rhetoric that vaccines cause autism. The festival’s website claimed that it explores “what’s behind the skyrocketing increase in autism diagnoses today.” While the film trailer teases at a conspiracy theory at the Centers for Disease Control, there was no mention of Wakefield’s own ethical violations that caused his seminal article that purported a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism to be retracted by the prestigious British medical journal, the Lancet. And no mention of the myriad of studies that contradict Wakefield’s now debunked 12 child study. No mention of the highly acclaimed study of 95,000 children published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found no connection between vaccines and autism — even in children who were at high risk of developing the disease.

If a conversation is what DeNiro wanted, let’s have that conversation — but a responsible one. Because the truth is that what celebrities say and do has a significant impact on the public. Just look at what happens when Oprah claims something is among her “favorite things” — it rapidly becomes a bestseller. The same is true in the area of health. Celebrities can have a dramatic impact. When Katie Couric had her colonscopy on national television, she demystified this procedure encouraging many to get this important cancer screening test and potentially saving thousands of lives. When Angelina Jolie declared that she had chosen to have bilateral mastectomies to reduce her risk of developing breast cancer as she carried a BRCA gene mutation, genetic counselors found a surge in people who were now interested in learning more about their own genetic risk. And when Jenny McCarthy and others promulgated the fictional link between vaccinations and autism, the United States saw its first measles outbreak and the first death from this disease in decades.

Mr. DeNiro’s desire to learn all he can about a disease affecting his child in understandable and it is clear that the rate of autism has increased over the years as our definition of what falls into this category has broadened. One could imagine that anyone would want to know what caused their loved one’s disease, and what could prevent it. As a cancer surgeon, the question I get asked most frequently are “what caused my cancer?,” and more than finding novel therapies to treat cancer after it has taken hold, patients want researchers to find the silver bullet that can prevent it. As a cancer survivor, himself, I’m sure Mr. DeNiro has thought about that too.

As it turns out, there is a silver bullet that can prevent 600,000 cases of cancer each year worldwide. We have a proven means to essentially eliminate most cases of cervical, anal, head and neck, and vaginal cancers. It’s called the HPV vaccine, and the U.S. National Cancer Program has termed this “an urgent national and global health priority… an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to preventing millions of avoidable cancers and other conditions in men and women worldwide.” Yet, misperceptions regarding vaccines and fear-mongering promulgated by filmmakers and politicians alike are putting public health and safety at risk. Whether it was Michelle Bachmann’s allegation that the HPV vaccine left a girl “mentally retarded”, or Donald Trump’s stories of a two-and-a-half year old who got a vaccine, a week later “got a fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic,” the propagation of such myths is of major concern — even to those within autism groups.

In a statement to the Washington Post, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network noted that false claims regarding the link between vaccines and autism are a double whammy — exposing children to life-threatening diseases while deepening the ignorance surrounding autistic disorders. “Vaccinations do not cause autism,” they said, “but the use of autism as a means of scaring parents from safeguarding their children from life-threatening illness demonstrates the depths of prejudice and fear that still surrounds our disability”.

I understand DeNiro’s desire to start a conversation about an issue that is deeply personal to him, and I applaud his decision to pull the one-sided “conspiracy theory” film, stating that it did not “contribute to or further the discussion [he] had hoped for.” But conversation is still needed. Mr. DeNiro, how about using your celebrity to shine a light on conspiracy theories about vaccines causing autism? By doing so, you may be able to destigmatize a condition that your son faces, while preventing over half a million people a year from getting cancer.

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