Alberta health advocates alarmed by anti-vaxx documentary screened in theatres, libraries

Public health advocates and doctors are voicing concerns about the spread of misinformation after an anti-vaccination film was screened at public libraries and select movie theatres in Alberta.

'It’s total propaganda based on people’s emotions,' expert says

Screenings of an anti-vaccination documentary at Alberta movie theatres and public libraries has public health advocates such as Timothy Caulfield concerned about the spread of misinformation. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

Public health advocates and doctors in Alberta are voicing concerns about the spread of misinformation after an anti-vaccination film was screened at public libraries and select movie theatres in the province.

Princess Theatre in Edmonton and Plaza Theatre in Calgary hosted multiple screenings of the controversial film Vaxxed II: The People's Truth, a sequel to a 2016 documentary that spread the unfounded claim that vaccines are linked to autism. 

The anti-vaccine non-profit group Canadians for Vaccine Choice has also hosted screenings at the Grande Prairie and Medicine Hat public libraries this month.

"It's not scientific at all. It's total propaganda based on people's emotions," said Dr. Joan Robinson, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at the University of Alberta. 

"I think it's very disappointing that it would be shown in a public forum, especially by the public library." 

The original 2016 Vaxxed documentary was directed and co-written by Andrew Wakefield, who led a now-discredited 1998 study that fuelled the claim that measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is linked to autism. 

The filmmakers say they connected with thousands of people eager to tell their stories in the wake of its release. Those stories form the backbone of the sequel, Vaxxed II.  

"There is absolutely no question in my mind after making this film that these doctors don't know what they're talking about," said director Brian Burrowes. 

The film leans to anecdotal evidence more than data, featuring parents emboldened by the original film sharing the belief that immunizations harmed their child.

"It's untrue. It's fearmongering," said Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta. 

"This is not about an open debate and freedom of expression. This is really about the spreading of harmful information that can really erode public confidence in vaccines." 

The owner of Princess and Plaza theatres did not respond to a request for comment from CBC News. 

Princess Theatre on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton promotes two Sunday screenings of anti-vaccination documentary Vaxxed II. (Gabrielle Brown/CBC)

Canadians for Vaccine Choice scheduled another screening of the film in Edmonton on Feb. 1, but will only disclose the location to ticket holders a day in advance. 

"If we really believe in science in society, then I think we should not be trying to promote something that's completely not scientific to the general public," Robinson said. 

Libraries defend decision

The film was screened in a rented room at the Grande Prairie Public Library on Monday afternoon to about eight people, including three organizers of the event, according to library director Deb Cryderman. 

Cryderman justified the decision to rent the room based on the library's commitment to free expression. 

The rental policy simply states a library will not knowingly allow the space to be used for any illegal activity. Otherwise, anyone is welcome, Cryderman said. 

"Even if information is controversial or doesn't correlate with our beliefs or we don't agree with it, we can still offer a room rental," she said. 

Chief librarian Ken Feser of the Medicine Hat Public Library referenced a similar policy to justify the decision to rent out a room for the film on Jan. 21. 

But Caulfield said he feared the public libraries were offering a veneer of legitimacy to the film's misinformation. 

"We know that the spread of misinformation is connected to physical harm, people getting infectious diseases, and given that I think there's a justification for saying, no, we're not going to show this kind of material," he said. 

About a dozen people mingled in the foyer of the Princess Theatre after a Sunday matinee screening of the documentary.

Luba Moe said that while she immunized her own children, she's glad her grandchildren are unvaccinated after watching the film. 

"If I had to do it over again, there is no way I would vaccinate them. No way," she said. 

'Lambs to the slaughter'

Moe teared up as she recalled the parents in the film. 

"These aren't tears of sadness, they're tears of passion," Moe said.

"They're holding us in fear, and we've got to wake up and do our own research and not follow like a bunch of lambs to the slaughter."

Public health officials say a growing vaccine hesitancy is fuelled by misinformation, such as the anti-vaxx documentary (itsmejust/Shutterstock)

The rise of the anti-vaccination movement has prompted the World Health Organization to name vaccine hesitancy a Top 10 threat to global health last year. 

About half of Canadians have some level of vaccine hesitancy, according to a recent survey by U.K.-based Wellcome Global Monitor that tracks global confidence in immunization. 

Health officials say that hesitancy is propelling some measles outbreaks in North America. But the filmmakers are pleased to know the movie is turning people away from immunization.

"Anytime someone decides not to vaccinate, I'm perfectly happy with it. I'm not worried these diseases are going to come back," said film director Burrowes.

The largest and most recent study looking for correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism covered roughly 650,000 children born in Denmark over 14 years and found no increased risk for autism among babies with the MMR vaccine. 

Measles has been virtually eliminated in Canada since the vaccine was introduced in the 1960s. At the time, there were upwards of 300,000 cases a year. Last year, there were 113 cases reported by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Another chief claim of the film is that the HPV vaccine produced serious, life-altering symptoms. But a systematic review completed for the World Health Organization found no relationship between any serious adverse event and the vaccine. 

On the contrary, scientists from Canada and Britain found the vaccine significantly reduced the likelihood of contracting the virus that causes a majority of cervical cancers.

"I really don't see how anyone could think that's not a good thing: a vaccine for cancer," said Robinson