Rejected Tribeca Documentary Recalls Debunked Study that Helped Spark Anti-Vaccine Movement

PHOTO: Robert De Niro issued an explanation after pulling a documentary on vaccination from the Tribeca Film Festival line up. PlayMichael N. Todaro/Getty Images
WATCH Robert De Niro Pulls 'Vaxxed' From Tribeca Film Festival

An anti-vaccine documentary originally slated to run at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York has put a spotlight again on the debunked study that is widely believed to have contributed to the unsubstantiated impression by some that vaccines can cause autism.

The documentary, called "Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe," was directed and written by Andrew Wakefield.

Wakefield, a doctor from the United Kingdom, is at the center of the controversy after publishing a small study, which has since been rescinded, that claimed to find an association between vaccines and autism.

In a statement, Tribeca Film Festival founder Robert De Niro explained the decision to remove the film from the event that starts April 13.

"My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family," Robert De Niro said this weekend. "We do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for."

In a previous statement, however, De Niro had referenced his raising a child with autism and wanting to start a conversation when festival organizers said they would screen the film.

Now he says festival officials have other concerns, which he doesn’t specify.

"The Festival doesn't seek to avoid or shy away from controversy," he said. "However, we have concerns with certain things in this film that we feel prevent us from presenting it in the Festival program. We have decided to remove it from our schedule."

Published in the Lancet medical journal in 1998, the study looked at just 12 patients and was rescinded by the journal in 2010 because, in part, it said some claims -- including Wakefield’s assertion that he saw multiple patients with similar symptoms in a short period of time -- were proven to be false.

In 2010, after a two-year investigation, the United Kingdom General Medical Council found Wakefield to have been "dishonest, irresponsible and showed callous disregard for the distress and pain.” That same year Wakefield was struck off the medical register in the United Kingdom and can no longer practice medicine in the country.

In a statement on the film website, Wakefield and his producer said they would continue to work toward getting a release for the film.

The movie reportedly includes interviews with doctors, politicians and parents, and reveals “an alarming deception that has contributed to the skyrocketing increase of autism,” according to the film website.

"Tribeca's action will not succeed in denying the world access to the truth behind the film Vaxxed," Wakefield said. "We are grateful to the many thousands of people who have already mobilized including doctors, scientists, educators and the autistic community."

Since 1998, multiple large-scale studies looking at vaccines have found no evidence of any link between autism and vaccines. Despite evidence to the contrary, Wakefield's small and rescinded study is widely believed to have contributed to the anti-vaccine movement over autism fears, with some parent groups and medical experts calling that study the "bell that can't be unrung."

The American Academy of Pediatrics applauded the Tribeca Film Festival for removing the film from the lineup.

“Vaccines work, plain and simple. Vaccines are one of the safest, most effective, and most important medical innovations of our time," the academy said in a statement today. "Claims that vaccines are linked to autism have been disproven by a robust body of medical literature. Any efforts to suggest otherwise would be dangerous to the health of our children, families and communities."

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, was in contact with the film festival staff to express concerns over the documentary. Schaffner pointed out there have been "at least 15" studies that have studied vaccines and found no indication there is an association with autism.

"Every time this false notion relating autism and other problems to vaccines comes up, it diverts attention from what we ought to be thinking about, doing the more and better research to get to true causes of autism," Schaffner told ABC News.

He said he was motivated to get involved after hearing the documentary was scheduled to be screened at the upcoming festival.

"The concern was that this is such a prestigious circumstances and such a prestigious venue, the premier showing of it gives it added luster," said Schaffner. "You have to be concerned at this juncture…is it appropriate and might it perhaps mislead more parents?"

In the U.S. vaccination rates remain high overall, although medical experts say pockets of unvaccinated people lead to overall increased risk for future outbreaks of illnesses such as measles and whooping cough.