Robert De Niro appeared on The Today Show Wednesday to make it crystal clear that he personally supported the inclusion of anti-vaccination film Vaxxed in the Tribeca Film Festival. A Facebook photo posted yesterday shows that he also met recently with a group of people well-known in anti-vaccination circles, including Jim Carrey and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
The photo was posted by Eric Gladen, the filmmaker behind Trace Amounts, an anti-vaccination documentary that premiered last year. Gladen’s picture shows De Niro and his wife Grace standing with Jim Carrey, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (who is, yes, one of Those Kennedys and who thinks vaccines cause autism). Also present were Gladen himself and John Raatz, a PR and marketing guy from a small New Agey-sounding firm called The Visioneering Group.
“This was from our meeting last week in NYC,” Gladen wrote. “Big things in the works with these powerhouse people.”
Jim Carrey also tweeted the photo:
Seeing De Niro with Gladen gives us some insight into what he may believe these days. Trace Amounts claims, basically, that there’s mercury in vaccines and it’s making your kids sick. That is not true. At one point, years ago, there was thimerosal in some vaccines, a form of ethylmercury used as a preservative. Out of an abundance of caution, it was removed in 2001, But ethylmercury is much less toxic than methylmercury (which should be avoided even in small doses). The World Health Organization says the doses of thimerosal once found in vaccines are safe, and studies have found no causal relationship between thimerosal exposure and any negative effects on an infant’s neurological or physcal development.
In his Today appearance yesterday, De Niro said he’s not “anti-vaccine,” and then clarified: “I want safe vaccines.”
That statement ignores the fact that, according to broad medical and scientific consensus, vaccines are very, very safe. It’s also the type of language that anti-vaccination activists use: suggesting that the jury is still out on vaccines and that all they’re asking for is more discussion. That was Jim Carrey’s argument during a lengthy Twitter rant in July, where he suggested that vaccines are full of “toxins.”
It’s also one of Gladen’s main talking points: that vaccines are “unavoidably unsafe” because they’re chock-full of mercury. Gladen, it should be noted is also selling tickets to a fundraiser planned for March benefitting something called The Mercury Project. The keynote speakers are Robert F. Kennedy and Alicia Silverstone, who’s also anti-vaccine. She tweeted supportively yesterday about De Niro’s disastrous Today appearance:
All that suggests that De Niro and Carrey are perhaps gearing up to become the new celebrity faces of debunked, nonsense claims about vaccine safety.
It’s terrifically depressing, but also really, really interesting: how in the hell did De Niro fall in with these folks? After all, Jim Carrey’s connection is clear: it’s Jenny McCarthy’s fault. But De Niro’s son Elliot, who has autism, is 18 years old; De Niro didn’t have much to say about vaccine safety during the height of Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccination fame, around 2009.
That suggests that De Niro got involved in this murky world sometime in the last five or six years. But how?
We may have an answer: A tipster suggested to Jezebel that De Niro met Andrew Wakefield, the former doctor who authored the now retracted and debunked “vaccines cause autism” study, in 2010. That’s when De Niro was in Austin filming Machete, in which he played a racist Senator. Wakefield lives in Austin with his wife and children now, having left his native England amid a cloud of controversy.
Machete was written and directed by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. He and his then-wife Elizabeth Avellan wrote a glowing blurb for one of Wakefield’s books, Callous Disregard.
From Amazon, all weird ellipses in the original:
“Meeting Dr. Andy Wakefield changed our lives and . . . we are forever grateful. His wise and measured advice about vaccinations helped us dodge a bullet . . . Our fourth son [had] multiple allergies and repeated infections . . . We now fully realize [he] would have been a victim of immune overload had we followed the regular vaccine schedule. . . . [He] is [now] bright and healthy . . . This book provides a terrifying insight into what has been happening behind the scenes as efforts redouble to silence Dr. Wakefield . . . It is a wake-up call to those who think [he] is anything other than a modern day hero fighting for all of our children.”
Respectful Insolence, a very good science blog, also explores the Rodriguez- De Niro connection as a possible way that De Niro found his way into the anti-vaccination world. And The Texas Observer reported in 2013 that Rodriguez and Avellan also raised money for the Thoughtful House Center for Children, which Wakefield founded in 2004 as an autism research center. He resigned in 2010; Thoughtful House has since changed its name and appears to have cut all ties with Wakefield.
It really seems as though we’re gearing up to face another publicity blitz from the anti-vaccine lobby. The last, McCarthy-led round contributed to declining vaccine rates in some wealthy pockets of Southern California. What fresh public health disaster does this one have in store?
Jim Carrey and Robert De Niro attend the 90th Birthday Celebration of Jerry Lewis at The Friars Club on April 8, 2016 in New York City. Photo via Getty