HEALTH authorities and a Lake Macquarie councillor whose son is on the autism spectrum have slammed a decision to screen a film linking vaccines with autism at a Charlestown community centre.
On Friday night The Place, a not-for-profit centre set up between Lake Macquarie council and property group GPT, hosted a screening of Vaxxed, a documentary that is being toured by the Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network (AVN).
The AVN told Hunter ticket-holders of the venue by text and email two hours before the screening.
Lake Macquarie Liberal councillor Kevin Baker, a director of The Place, said he was shocked centre management had agreed to screen the film, whose central premise is that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine may be leading to an epidemic of autism diagnoses in children.
“It’s something that’s pretty close to me. I’ve got close family with autism including my nephew, and my son sits on the spectrum,” he said.
“When they make these claims about vaccines having links to autism, a lot of the AVN group are quite nasty in the way they portray that.”
Cr Baker has demanded an investigation into “whether there are processes in place” to prevent similar screenings at The Place.
Hunter New England Health firmly refuted the film’s portrayal of vaccination as harmful to children.
“High vaccination rates have ensured that serious childhood diseases including measles have become rare in Hunter New England,” a spokesperson said.
“We will continue to encourage parents to vaccinate their children.”
The health service also took aim at Vaxxed director Andrew Wakefield, the lead author of a controversial study published in 1998 and since retracted that claimed the autism link.
“Andrew Wakefield lost his license to practise medicine due to fraudulent research,” the spokesperson said.
The centre’s management said it received the AVN’s booking late on Friday afternoon and that the opinions expressed in the film “do not represent the views of The Place or its board”.
“The Place is a safe, open and welcoming space for community activities,” the management said.
“We will be reviewing our relevant policies to ensure our actions are consistent with this position.”
But AVN president Tasha David said the venue knew what it was agreeing to host.
“The [Place] employee who answered the company phone was told the film was Vaxxed, and that it was about vaccines and controversial. The booking was confirmed, and we turned up to do our screening,” Ms David said.
“At no stage has the AVN or Vaxxed misled or lied to a venue. It is not in our interests to do this.”
Friday’s screening was attended by about 200 people who paid $25 per adult to see the film and participate in a “Q&A” with a panel including Dr Brian Hooker, a US biologist featured in the film.
Dr Hooker and Dr Suzanne Humphries, an anti-vaccination nephrologist, answered audience questions alongside the film’s producer Polly Tommey, and a camera crew filmed attendees’ “vaccine injury stories”.
Dr Michael Gannon, the president of the Australian Medical Association, said Vaxxed would mainly appeal to “rusted-on conspiracy theorists” but could also sway a smaller group of “vaccine-hesitant” parents.
“This kind of misinformation threatens the most important public health program we have,” Dr Gannon said.
“Local government plays an important part in a healthy community. If they make their facilities available for this kind of rubbish, they undermine their role in the community’s health.”
Lake Macquarie mayor Kay Fraser is on the board of The Place and said the council is “at arm’s length” from the running of the centre.
Cr Fraser said “we have to be careful” about telling groups they can’t hire community facilities, but “maybe it’s a time where we look at our policies and procedures with all our venues”.
The AVN caused an uproar earlier this month when it hired a Gold Coast school hall to screen Vaxxed under what angry parents and staff said were false pretences.