'The Pathological Optimist' delves into origins of Anti-Vaxxer movement
The anti-vaccination movement is one of the most discussed ─ and disputed ─ topics in popular medicine today. Over the course of five years, filmmaker Miranda Bailey takes her viewers into the home of the man who is credited for sparking the controversy ─ Dr. Andrew Wakefield.
In 1998, Wakefield published a paper with several other colleagues in the British Medical Journal drawing a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism in children.The paper resulted in a miasma of criticism from the medical community, ultimately resulting in the retraction of the paper from the journal, and Wakefield losing his medical certification, effectively ruining him.
Using footage and documents from 1998 onwards, the filmmakers construct an in-depth journey alongside Wakefield as he navigates through public outrage and professional humiliation to try and vindicate himself from what he sees as defamation, and a conspiracy against him set in motion by big pharmaceutical companies.
The documentary does an excellent job of maintaining objectivity throughout, but certainly could have benefitted from a variation in perspective, bringing in different views by either side of the argument. With the exception of news clips depicting Wakefield arguing with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper as well as footage of his biggest critic, Brian Deer─who declined to be interviewed for the film─there was little said from the dissenting side of the story, with all of the interviews being of family members, zealotous supporters or the self-proclaimed “pathological optimist” himself. However, the filmmakers were able to combat this with plenty of media coverage over the course of the controversy, as well as mounting scientific proof that there is, in fact, no connection between autism and the MMR vaccine.
Throughout the documentary, Wakefield presses his case, adamant that he is in the right and that “big pharma” is out to get him, operating through its puppet reporter, Deer. This in itself is an engaging narrative, but it is far from the full picture.
The evidence, as well as the scientific proof against Wakefield presented in the film is pretty damning. In the documentary there are two depictions of Wakefield. One is the evil, heartless man driven only by his desire for money and his building recognition as the sort of cult-like figurehead of the anti-vaccination movement. The other is simply an incompetent man who, along with his peers came to a presumptuous conclusion (by cutting corners and ignoring ethical guidelines) that resulted in a worldwide hysteria with real life consequences for families around the world.
Bailey and her team created an engaging story with “The Pathological Optimist.” It was many things: a story about a man’s fall from grace, an international conspiracy brought to light by a man who was supposed to silenced, the story of a struggling family trying to find its feet in a new reality and a cautionary tale for academics and medical practitioners who risk jumping to hasty conclusions about consequential information.
The media and medical community as a whole has come to the conclusion that Wakefield is a charlatan, exploiting families with autistic children for his own personal monetary gain. His advertisement for his book at all of his speeches certainly support this claim. Wakefield continues to have faith in his research and believes he will one day be vindicated. The anti-vaccination movement still has an impressive following after all.
The viewer must ultimately come to their own conclusion.
The Pathological Optimist was released in theaters October 13.
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