In 2001, Ketchum-raised Leslie Manookian was working in finance in London when she had a conversation that would change the course of her life. A man casually mentioned that vaccines could cause harm. Manookian's initial disbelief in this statement started her down a path that will cross the Wood River Valley this Sunday when the documentary she wrote and produced, "The Greater Good," is screened as part of the inaugural Sun Valley Film Festival.
"The Greater Good" is a character-driven documentary that delves into the thorny issue of childhood immunizations. It presents advocates from both sides of the debate. On one side are parent-activists who believe their children have been injured by vaccine side effects, as well as doctors and scientists who have concerns about vaccine safety and are calling for more research. On the other side are doctors and public health officials who believe that vaccines are necessary and that the negative side effects are rare.
The documentary is the fulfillment of a long and arduous journey for Manookian, who is once again a Ketchum resident. She enlisted the help of two fellow Wood River Valley residents, director/producer Chris Pilaro and director/producer Kendall Nelson, to bring her vision to life.
The Express spoke to Manookian ahead of her appearance at the festival this Sunday about some of the issues raised in the documentary.
Idaho Mountain Express: "The Greater Good" is a documentary that takes a new angle in the vaccine debate, opening a dialogue on the accountability of vaccine manufacturers, questioning their motives and whether it is politics and profit, not science, that drives the manufacture of vaccines today. There's strong implication in the film that the drug companies are just in it for the money. Is that what you believe?
Leslie Manookian: The CEO's responsibility is to maximize shareholder profit. They get hired and fired based on whether or not they increase shareholder profits.
That said, why do we have so many new vaccines? You have to ask yourself, is flu really that bad and that dangerous? Is chicken pox really that much of a scourge? How can you possibly justify giving a hepatitis B shot to a 12-hour-old infant who is not at risk of contracting that disease? You have to really take a step back and wonder why it is being done.
One of the main focuses of the documentary is the newly introduced, highly controversial Gardasil vaccine. Can you explain the issue?
LM: The FDA fast-tracked Gardasil. Fast-tracking is supposed to be a vehicle for approving drugs for a public health emergency. HPV (Human papillomavirus) is not a public health emergency and in fact has been well controlled by Pap smears. What is happening is extraordinary. California just passed a law that children 12 and over can be vaccinated at school against HPV without parental consent. There have been reports of over 100 deaths after that vaccination, and there have been thousands of serious adverse events reported. Other states are following suit—New York has one coming and now Maryland is considering legislation that would allow a pharmacist to vaccinate 9-year-olds with any CDC-recommended vaccine without parental consent.
Why do you think this is happening?
LM: I have no idea. I think it's troubling. I think it raises the questions: What is their reasoning? Why are they vaccinating children as young as 12 for diseases they are not at real risk of getting until they are sexually active? In the very beginning, vaccinations were a noble cause to protect the public health, but has it gone too far? Do we need to vaccinate against every disease just because we can?
A study showed 52 percent of American school children have some sort of chronic illness. We don't know that vaccines are causing all those problems, but there is peer-reviewed science suggesting links. Is that a desirable outcome—that we have protected kids from acute diseases but we have potentially caused millions of kids to be learning impaired or asthmatic? We need to make informed decisions. Maybe it is better to risk learning disabilities but have no polio, but is it worth it in exchange for avoiding chicken pox?
This issue is not black and white, and what we are trying to do with this film is bring people into the conversation, help parents understand there is more to the story, help physicians and health care providers and scientists understand. Help everyone come together. And most importantly, to urge the scientists to do the research. Right now many scientists live in fear of doing the research.
What is the issue you are trying to highlight and what is the research you feel needs to be done?
LM: The U.S. has a law called the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, which recognizes that vaccines are "unavoidably unsafe." It recognizes that vaccines can injure and kill some children and it compensates some victims. What we wanted to do was help people understand that this issue is not as black and white as we've been told. We have legislation that indicates vaccinations can injure and kill.
There's never been a large, controlled study comparing vaccinated children and nonvaccinated children so we don't know how widespread the injury is. We don't know because we haven't done those large studies to find that out. One of the things we are arguing for with this documentary is let's do this study so we can make vaccines safer for everybody. And, shouldn't we be free to make the choice of what we put in our bodies?
What is it that the scientists are afraid of?
The scientists we met during the making of the film told us it is very difficult to get research dollars to investigate the safety of vaccines [that are already on the market]. There is immense pressure on scientists to bring in research dollars, and pursing [a large study comparing vaccinated and nonvaccinated children] is very unpopular, because most research is funded by either the pharmaceutical industry or the government, and both of those groups have a vested interest in vaccines. What often happens is that scientists who have done a study that found some negative results about vaccines have found it very difficult to do follow-up research because they can't get funding for the research.
There have been a lot of scientific studies disproving any links between vaccines and autism, and studies that say unequivocally that vaccines are safe and effective, and that they don't cause neurological and developmental disorders.
LM: There is science showing that giving boys the hepatitis B vaccine at birth leads to a three-fold increase in autism. And boys who receive the full series of three shots are nine times more likely to receive special education services. There is science showing autoimmune disease and neurological impairment after the vaccine ingredient aluminum. There is also research showing the occurrence of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, seizures and encephalitis after vaccination. There's much research out there but the mainstream media does not often report it and medical authorities assume they are rare cases.
There have been many studies showing that the MMR vaccine and mercury do not increase levels of autism, but no research has been done on the whole vaccine schedule. In 1983, the Centers for Disease Control recommended 22 doses of seven vaccines by a child's sixth birthday. Today our children get 48 doses of 14 vaccines by their sixth birthday. And there's never been a study to determine whether that doubling of the number of doses and vaccines is safe.
The three main subjects in your film have tragic stories but it is not shown unequivocally that their conditions are due to vaccine injuries. Also, there isn't a family interviewed who lost their child to one of these preventable diseases. Why is that?
LM: When we set out to do the film, we wanted to find people who had children injured by infectious diseases. Not a single one would talk to us because, in our opinion, it is human nature to want to believe that a vaccine could have saved their own child's life and so they did not want to participate in something that also showed that vaccines could cause harm.
The documentary continually pushes the line that people should be allowed to choose, through informed consent. However, the film also raises a lot of questions that it doesn't provide answers to. So how does someone achieve informed consent? Is it even possible?
LM: First of all I think it's almost impossible for a person to exercise informed consent on vaccinations today because adequate research hasn't been done. The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act requires that parents are informed to the risks of vaccinations and that they voluntarily consent. But most parents are not informed. I know people whose doctors have told them, "I promise you nothing is going to happen to your child." That's not true, because vaccines, like all pharmaceutical products, carry risks and no doctor can guarantee that.
While the film presents the dangers of vaccinations, what about the risks associated with the illnesses those vaccines prevent? For example, last year saw the highest numbers of measles in the United States since 1996, according to the CDC.
LM: What you're saying is very true, but life carries risk. Our question is, who should be making those decisions about which risks we'll take? If a parent chooses not to vaccinate their child, clearly they are choosing the option of their child potentially getting the disease. That right should be a parent's right.
Did your personal views alter in any way during the filming?
LM: Before I went into making this film, I would have been much more inclined to say, yes, it's OK to sacrifice some kids for the greater good. But all of us feel so strongly that the individual freedoms are paramount in a situation when you may be potentially putting your child at risk.
If we can't engage in a rational, reasonable dialogue, how are we ever going to make [our children] as safe as they can be? To cause the least amount of harm? We really hope the film creates a stage and lets people come together and talk about it.
Do you feel you have achieved your goals for the documentary?
LM: We have 1,000 people signed up to do community screenings. We have received awards from both the film world and in the public health world. We've had literally hundreds of physicians and health care practitioners thank us for making this film, for how we presented this issue. Parents, too. It's extremely rewarding.
There have been those who criticized us, but for the most part it's been incredibly positive. We told everyone we interviewed that we were going to show both sides, we said no one will take us seriously if we don't. We have people in the autism community who are mad at us, people in the vaccine industry and the vaccine safety community who are mad at us, because it wasn't a polemic. We feel we did our job properly because no one is totally happy.
If you had a baby today, would you vaccinate your child?
LM: I would never comment on that. I don't want people to think "Oh, they did all that research so they must know the answer." Each and every person knows what their own [medical] background is. I fully believe that we all have to inform ourselves and educate ourselves and make those decisions ourselves.
"The Greater Good" will be screened at 1 p.m., Sunday, March 18, at the Magic Lantern movie theater in Ketchum as part of the inaugural Sun Valley Film Festival. A Q&A with the filmmakers will follow the screening. Tickets are $10, and can be bought in advance at www.sunvalleyfilmfestival.org. A DVD of the film can be purchased at www.greatergoodmovie.org.
Vaccines in Idaho
Lisa Klamm, immunization coordinator for the South Central Health District, explains Idaho's laws on immunizations:
"We take our stance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. We vaccinate to prevent death and disability. We are here to prevent every disease we can.
"In Idaho no one is forcing you to have vaccines. But because our state laws protect the greater good, there are laws for schools. All vaccines that are recommended by the CDC are required to get into school, but in Idaho you are allowed the opportunity to make a personal exemption, a medical exemption or a religious exemption. However, if the disease your child hasn't been vaccinated for comes through the school, they will be [removed from school] for the incubation period for their own safety.
"Everyone that is vaccinated in Idaho is given a vaccination handout that states what the potential risks of that particular vaccination are. You can read that and decide for yourself what the risks are and whether you want to take those risks.
"If people have questions about vaccination safety, we recommend they visit www.cdc.gov/vaccines. There's plenty of information there. You are ultimately in charge of your child. Immunizations are a choice, immunizations are here to prevent death and disability. They save thousands of lives and they are a choice in Idaho."