Last week, SBS Television in Australia broadcast Sonya Pemberton’s much-anticipated documentary ‘Jabbed’. The 90 minute programme looked at the state of vaccinations across the world in both developed and developing countries. The history and contemporary condition was portrayed on a global scale as well as on a personal level, following several families’ experiences with immunisation.
Pemberton admitted on an interview with ‘The Skeptic Zone’ podcast last week that prior to making this film she saw vaccinations as a no-brainer and failed to understand why there is so much fear and misinformation about them spread within modern society. It was the anti-vaccination reaction to one of her previous documentaries that inspired her to delve deeper into this issue and investigate why it can be so divisive. She said that at times she struggled not to drown in the wealth of stories and opinions she needed to balance and present as correctly as possible. Fortunately, SBS pushed her to finish the project, which is a good thing as this is a very well made film.
This documentary has been made over the past two years or so and is pretty up to date with its information and accounts. We learn that mistrust of vaccines has been around since Edward Jenner’s discovery that smearing cowpox scabs on an open wound resulted in immunisation to smallpox (he did not invent vaccination as many believe, but this was a major step). A famous painting from the time shows a disinterested Jenner surrounded by people literally turning into cows and sprouting horns etc. People at the time were probably uneducated enough to fear this actually happening, and reading some of the comments from the ‘Jabbed’ page of the SBS website this week, it is alarming to see that some people seem almost as dangerously ignorant still today. If this documentary teaches anything, it is not to trust the scary amount of unqualified ‘advice’ one can find on the Internet relating to the subject. As one expert points out, it is completely natural to fear vaccines and those in the field probably need to get the facts out there rather than hand-waving and dismissing such fears.
We also learn that in France in 2007 40 measles cases were diagnosed, yet in 2011 there were thousands of cases including six deaths. Diseases that were all but eradicated a generation ago are back apparently because society is more scared of the jab than the disease. In India we are told that 7000 die of cervical cancer each year but that in 2010 they suspended the vaccine for pre-sexually active girls there because four girls died. The story went viral (an unavoidable turn of phrase in such a film) but the news that was never widely reported was that none of the four deaths were related to the vaccine – two of them were drownings, for goodness’ sake. Clearly the media has a role to play: by all means write sensationalist headlines about such tragic cases, but the new updated evidence needs the same coverage. In Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan (this documentary really does cover stories from all over the world) we are shown the theatre where the discovery of the polio vaccine was announced. On the whole, that has led to unaccountable saved lives and yet the good news stories never get reported, do they? We beat smallpox – killed it off completely. That’s incredible but we often forget it.
Clearly it is hard not to watch this film without forming strong opinions of your own. The production and artwork is beautiful but you will barely notice because the stories are too captivating. It is interesting to watch scores of football fans flock to the European championships in Lviv, Ukraine unaware that it is the home of recent widespread disease outbreaks and their potential risk if not immunised from others unknowingly carrying disease. Far more absorbing, though, were the anecdotes from those with extreme personal experience of vaccinations.
Take the parents of the poor boy who suffered seizures and permanent brain damage after a vaccination. Those people blamed themselves for six months before being told the child had gene mutation that meant that such symptoms were a case of when, not if. The vaccine was a trigger for the seizures, not causation. Astonishingly, just as you begin to think ‘well perhaps this is one case where being anti-vax is understandable’ the mother explains that they are pro-vaccination, as they have seen the horror of what the disease can do to people and know that immunisation is for the greater good. After all, the child had more chance of being struck by lightning than suffering a reaction like that to a jab and the benefits clearly outweigh the risk. The scary thing is that some people in society – asthmatics for instance – cannot always be vaccinated for medical reasons. They are wholly dependent on ‘herd immunity’ and if other members of society do not get vaccinated, they can unwittingly pass on a disease. Needless to say, this film is very good at tugging the emotional heartstrings and begs the question of social responsibility without actually posing it.
Of course, this film deals with the negative effects of vaccinations, too, like when the vaccine is poorly prepared. The oral polio vaccine was once produced with live versions of the disease in by accident, with terrible consequences. Polio was wholly eradicated except for a few cases of people catching it from the vaccine and it took far longer than it should have done to get rid of the oral vaccine altogether, especially when you consider the injected vaccine was superior and available at the time. When the Queen’s homeopathic doctor shows up you start to wonder if the film is about to enter the realms of nonsense anti-vax propaganda, but he explains how the founder of homeopathy was pro-vax and so he is too. An amusing if perhaps irrelevant segment which I suppose may at least convince some homeopaths to be sensible when it comes to something as serious as getting jabs. A minor criticism is that the documentary could use more statistics when explaining the effect of vaccinations on society; it felt like a waste not to have more statistics given the visually pleasing graphics that were utilised to highlight members of a crowd repeatedly.
We are told that due to the Internet, scare stories spread quickly and it creates distrust of the vaccination process and the pharmaceutical companies producing them. “Big Pharma” is often cited as a conspiracy whereby the big pharmaceutical companies produce vaccines just to make money. Of course, they would make far more money by people being sick but logical fallacies rarely get in the way of a good conspiracy. For years, we have known and repeatedly proven that vaccinations do not cause autism. Unfortunately, the signs of autism begin to show at an age in children shortly after they have received their first vaccinations, so uninformed people put two and two together. As previously mentioned, this film is very good at stressing the urgency for experts to help spread knowledge within society so people do not feel the need to browse the misinformation strewn across the web.
The message from this film is that there are risks, but as one expert puts it: “do I allow my teenage daughter to cross town alone by bus to get to her tap dancing class even though there are risks? Of course I do – she needs to learn to be independent, and the benefits far outweigh the risk. And so it is with vaccines.” The film may aim not to take a standpoint as such, but it definitely errs on the side of science and sense, which is a good thing. I’m not sure there is enough to convince the extreme anti-vaxers, but there probably never could be. Let’s just hope that the 50% of parents with “concerns about immunisation” watch this and see the benefits explained perhaps better and more accessible than ever before in a TV show.
Pemberton is currently refilming bits in America to appeal more to a US audience before it airs over there. Many other countries have picked up the documentary too, but the UK is yet to. If you live in the UK, I encourage you to email the BBC, ITV, Channels 4 + 5 etc as this is a documentary definitely worth seeing, even if you have never particularly been interested in the issue. In fact, watch it especially if the issue is not one you are too familiar with. You won’t be able to stop watching and will come out having learnt something of benefit to us all that we all have a responsibility for.
The film can still be watched on demand in Australia here.