A few weeks ago, I was ready to criticize somebody who I respect as an artist -- that person being Mr. Robert De Niro. I was upset with him because as the cofounder of the Tribeca Film Festival, he was prepared to allow the screening of “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” a controversial documentary that essentially serves as an infomercial for the anti-vaccine movement.
The so-called brain behind this baseless documentary is a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield. In addition to falsely claiming that vaccines cause autism, he has been sanctioned by the British medical authorities and was stripped of his medical license. His research has been disproven, but he and his legion of followers claim that it’s part of a greater conspiracy to cover up the cause of autism.
Initially, I bit my tongue when it came to De Niro because he eventually came to see the light and pulled the movie from the festival’s lineup. But after his comments Wednesday, it appears he will not escape this controversy unscathed. Appearing on the Today show, De Niro said his wife recalls seeing a change in their now 18-year-old autistic son after he was vaccinated. When pressed, he said that as a parent of an autistic child, he is concerned and wants to know the truth. He also expressed regret over pulling “Vaxxed” from the festival.
I don’t challenge De Niro’s vision for questioning the origin of autism, and I don’t discredit his concerns as a father. As the father of an 18-year-old autistic son, I too have questions that I want answered. However, the difference between he and I lies in how we’ve chosen to investigate these answers. For more than 30 years, I have dedicated myself to the world of science and have had access to the greatest research institutions in the world. I have never hid behind a celebrity doctor personality, rather I continued to practice medicine and have delivered children of women from all facets of life. I am in the trenches each and every day not just for my patients, but for my son.
When it comes to health, false promises and misinformed theories lead to inefficient therapies and dead end research. At the end of the day, it leads to anger and the misperception that somebody “caused” whatever medical hardship you’re facing to happen to you, and that is not a good starting point when it comes to autism. After 25 years of watching the rates of autism increase, we are faced with two challenges in this field. One: we must do more for these young adults entering the real world. We need more education, more job opportunities, better government support and full integration into society. Two: we must support genuine autism research. We must find out where autism originates, which could possibly begin in the womb.
Creating an environment of suspicion only delays what we must accomplish today. De Niro, I need you and your celebrity pals to concentrate on today. I know that you chose a different career path than I, and that it takes many years of scientific training to understand cellular biology, but that is not an excuse to give any form of validity to Wakefield’s quack claims. Rather than acting as a mouthpiece for conspiracy theorists and the like, it’s time for you to use your celebrity power for good and help me, a father like you, get the answers we want.