US/World

PBS Documentary On Vaccinations Hopes To Unravel The Truth For Americans

Vaccines Create Public Fear And A New PBS Documentary Strives To Dismay
New PBS documentary carefully delivers transparent vaccine message to viewers. Photo courtesy of NOVA PBS Screenshot

Vaccinations are laced with questions, parental concerns, and confusion, causing largely eradicated and life-threatening diseases to return to the United States and threaten the lives of children. PBS’ newest documentary may be able to disseminate the truth once and for all. On Wednesday, Sept. 10 at 9:00 p.m. ET on PBS, "NOVA: Vaccines-Calling The Shots" will address the biggest misconceptions about vaccines with the goal of opening healthy dialogue with parents who deserve to ask questions and have doctors who are ready to deliver answers.  

The documentary analyzes the science laying down the foundation for public knowledge and then reveals the less understood facts behind vaccinations, all while the film’s Emmy award winning director Sonya Pemberton hopes to chip away at the myth and misinformation behind it all. Diseases are reemerging in the United States, and nervous parents who skip their children’s shots are part of the reason why whooping cough, measles, and mumps lurk in playgrounds, daycares and classrooms. Pemberton’s documentary demands its audience to think critically about the decisions regarding their child’s vaccine schedules and asks them to reflect on why. If the parents don’t know why, then they should be asking questions and the medical community needs to be prepared to answer.  

After Pemberton’s film “Jabbed- Love, Fear, and Vaccines” made its way across the globe last year and examined all sides of parents wrestling with one heavily-weighted question (Should I have my child vaccinated?), Pemberton realized the importance of catering a film to the American audience in order to dissuade their hesitation to ask healthy, normal questions and concerns about vaccinations while eliminating the notion of “us versus them,” which is exactly how her newest film was born.    

“It took four years of research, talking, and thinking about what concerns needed to be addressed in the film,” Pemberton told Medical Daily. Pemberton set up the opening scene with a group of mothers in a California park who express their concerns, confusion, and hesitation toward vaccinations and the tight schedules they’re recommended to follow for their children.    

“A lot of people have a lot of questions, and they were afraid if they asked certain questions about vaccinations they would be pushed into the corner and labeled as someone who was uninformed,” Pemberton said. “Ninety percent of people vaccinate their children on time. However, there are still 10 percent who choose not to vaccinate on schedule or not vaccinate their child altogether. This is a tiny number and they don’t dominate.”    

A sneak preview of the film will give anti- and pro-vaccine viewers alike an idea of what they can expect, especially from those who find themselves muddled in the middle with a plethora of inundating facts and peer opinion. Today’s technology allows us to share and gain momentum and following, regardless of its merit, which is why the dissemination of clear and concise information and research needs to trump the disorienting viral spiral of misinformation.    

“We should ask questions about medicines, and vaccines are a form of medicines," Pemberton said. "These are healthy, normal questions and people shouldn’t feel pigeon-holed. It’s not us versus them, and it’s not a debate. This documentary is meant to open up dialogue for some healthy conversation and exchange of concerns met by scientifically-based answers."    

NOVA viewers transition into a segment of the documentary that addresses one of the greatest medical fallicies of them all: vaccinations and its misleading link to autism. The film introduces an insightfully well-spoken Alison Singer, president and co-founder of the Autism Science Foundation, along with her daughter Jodie, who has autism and is severely impaired because of it. Singer cites the overwhelming scientific evidence refuting a link between vaccines and autism and discusses the lingering effects of public perception from a long-discredited study.    

“I’ve seen a lot of documentaries and I think this is the single best treatment on vaccines and sorting through facts,” Singer told Medical Daily, who added she was honored to be involved in the film. “This one does a lot of good for the public.”    

The documentary’s producers couldn’t ignore the connection vaccinations have with autism because of the public’s widely misguided understanding of a retracted study by Andrew Wakefield, a British surgeon and medical researcher who has since been stripped of his medical license. In 1998, he published a small study in The Lancet, and it spread like wildfire across the world, stirring fear in parents and pediatricians alike. After a decade-long investigation of Wakefield’s research and studies of more than 25 million children, no one was able to replicate his findings or find a link to autism and vaccines in their own research. Today, one in four parents in the U.S. still believe certain vaccines can cause autism in otherwise healthy children, and as a direct consequence there’s been a steady decline in childhood vaccinations.    

“When Wakefield’s report was released in The Lancet, it started people thinking there may be some sort of relationship between vaccines and autism,” Singer said. “The good news is this can be proven with science, and results from University-based studies have shown there is no difference. There is no connection."    

Autism has been present in Singer’s life since she was young. Growing up with her autistic brother Steven gave her a unique perspective that’s allowed her to watch the progression of autism research and societal perceptions for more than 40 years. When Steven was diagnosed in the 1960s, the doctor told her mother it was her fault and "she should try better on the next one." After they told Singer’s mother to institutionalize her son she demanded better from medicine, sought out answers, and enrolled him in an autism study at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. In 1920, they were the first medical center in the nation to study autistic children and continued to become one of the leading research pioneers for autism, discovering there was a clear difference between autistic and schizophrenic children and by the 1960s realized there was potential to make children more amenable through special therapies.    

Autism falls under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), which encompass five complex brain development disorders that cause social, cognitive, and communication impairments depending upon where they fall on the scale from very mild to very severe cases. The film directs its audience to confront with the real questions between the fear of vaccination and the minute percentage of children who experience adverse side effects. If it were true and autism had a proven causal link to vaccinations, would you rather your child be autistic or die from whooping cough?    

“Parents come at this from a place of love, and parents who already have a child with autism ask me what I think about vaccinating their second child and that’s why it’s important to have documentaries like this. It’s important to ask questions,” Singer said. When she was asked if she believed autism had genetic roots, she said, “It doesn’t matter what I believe, it matters what the science tells us, and in 40 to 45 percent of kids with autism, we can isolate the gene. What we see from concerned parents is they want to know what causes autism, and we’re moving forward and finding out what these genes do. Science is moving very fast, but I don’t think it’ll ever be fast enough for parents.”    

Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine has led scientists to evidence that indicates because of differences in prenatal brain activity, autism begins in the second trimester during pregnancy. The specific brain region that exhibits abnormal gene expression is developed during that time, and further research is being conducted to understand if there weren’t enough cells to express the genes correctly or if the genes just weren’t functioning properly.    

Autism is only one of the fears parents have when it comes to vaccinations. They’ve reported depression, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders, and other correlative links, but a cost-benefit analysis will reveal the dangers of exposing children to a world without protection from known harms, such as measles and mumps, far outweigh not vaccinating. Pemberton takes her viewers through captivating animation and interviews in order to try and diminish some of those fears through transparency and tact.    

The documentary argues that there isn’t a dichotomy of the vaccination stances standing staunchly on either sides of a wall, but instead a whole population of concerned parents with healthy questions. Those parents will either schedule their child’s vaccinations on time with the doctor’s recommended timeframes or they’ll skip or delay certain shots because of apprehension of the unknown. The health care professionals in the documentary drive home the message that when parents choose not to vaccinate their child, they’re taking a risk and making a serious choice down a different path of unknown dangers.

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