Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Special Reports

CNN Special Report: The Truth About Vaccines. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired April 10, 2021 - 21:00   ET




DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's hard to remember life before COVID. But before the pandemic, this stadium, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, on any given Sunday would have been filled with 70,000 plus fans sitting side by side, cheering shoulder to shoulder. But those stands in this field are now empty. No longer a sports stadium, it is now a mass vaccination site for COVID-19. What they're doing here and in places just like that across the country is key to getting us out of this devastating pandemic that has taken more than half a million American lives. And despite that incredible loss of life, polls are showing about a third of Americans are still hesitant or downright unwilling to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

The anti-vaccine movement has had a long history. And before COVID hit, we were actually investigating and filming a documentary about vaccine hesitancy. Now more than a year into the pandemic, we felt that documentary was more important than ever for you to see.

This is a CNN Special Report: The Truth About Vaccines.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Measles is making a comeback.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The nation's largest city is in the middle of a public health emergency.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the epicenter.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Akin to taking a pipe bomb and throwing it in a busy time square subway.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was a public health nightmare. What do you do?

GUPTA: I've never seen anything quite like this, traveled all over the world, seeing outbreaks in refugee camps in Haiti and Pakistan and Jordan. But in the United States in Brooklyn, and outbreak this bad, I never thought it was going to happen. And now I realize just how vulnerable we are.

This is your hood, really, huh?

DR. ALEXANDER ARROYO, BROOKLYN PEDIATRIC ER DOCTOR: Yeah, for sure, 100%. Born and bred. GUPTA: Alexander Arroyo is a pediatric emergency doctor. His Brooklyn hospital was on the front lines of the biggest measles outbreak in the United States in decades.

ARROYO: See, what you're looking for?

GUPTA: He's also a father to young children, raising them in the same neighborhood hardest hit by the disease.

ARROYO: Halloween night 2018, I'm with my children creating and I get a phone call from our infectious disease nurse that the child we saw the day prior, who was potentially a measles patient was actually positive for the measles virus.

GUPTA: How bad is it?

ARROYO: Not only makes you sick at that moment, it also kind of rewrites your immune system to the point where things you've been previously immune to, now you may not be immune to them because it kind of destroys all that immunity.

DR. PAUL OFFIT, PROF. OF PEDIATRICS, CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL OF PHILADELPHIA: Measles causes pneumonia, measles causes infection of the brain, measles can kill you.

GUPTA: What I think people don't realize about measles is that it's one of the most contagious pathogens anywhere on the earth. If I had measles right now, and I left this room and two hours later, someone walked into here who hadn't been immunized had a 90% chance of getting measles. It just hangs out in the air in these little droplets.

GUPTA (Voice-over): According to the World Health Organization, more than 207,000 people died from the measles around the world in 2019.

GUPTA: Because of vaccines, we were able to do something that is hardly ever done, which is to actually eliminate a disease. We eliminated measles in the United States in the year 2000. And all of a sudden everything changed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That measles outbreak is spreading.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This new lamp says it is working with the state health department to investigate an outbreak of measles. And health officials say the tension an outbreak could have been avoided with measles shots.

GUPTA: Everyone heard about Disneyland 147 people got the measles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Health officials in Minnesota are tackling the worst measles outbreak in nearly 30 years.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In the area known as Little Mogadishu has become ground zero for a major outbreak of measles.

GUPTA: Two years later, 2017, Minnesota, the Somali American community is sort of drumbeat. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's not a good record to break. We have reached a 20 year high in measles cases.

GUPTA: 2019, 31 states, more than 1200 people get the measles.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: More measles cases are being reported in New York City.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: New York declares a public health emergency.


GUPTA: The Brooklyn, New York City, it'd be the fourth largest city in the United States. And it's really diverse. So people are traveling around the world. And then they're coming back to Brooklyn. They bring infectious disease back to an area where people aren't vaccinated. This just spreads like wildfire.

DR. DEMETRE DASKALAKIS, FORMER NYC DEPUTY HEALTH COMMISSIONER: This outbreak started in October 2018, one child with measles went to school, and then that child gave measles to every single unvaccinated child in the school, who then went home and gave measles to all of their family and friends.

GUPTA: That community, ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn, like Williamsburg, at local schools, religious exemptions allowed parents not to vaccinate their children. But at the same time, religious communities were also prime targets for disinformation campaigns.

AMANDA SCHAFFER, WIRED MAGAZINE CONTRIBUTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: The community that tends to live in relatively dense living quarters to have a lot of interactions with extended families, gathering a lot of congregating in synagogues. And so it's the kind of community in which a spark of disease has the potential to spread very quickly.

GUPTA: You weren't surprised when you heard about this first patient with measles?

DOV LANDA, PHYSICIAN ASSISTANT: I was not surprised, unfortunately, no.

GUPTA: Over the past few years, Dov Landa has increasingly been fielding levels of vaccine skepticism from his patients in this area.

LANDA: People fearful of vaccinating were on the rise. Misinformation, being spread around the neighborhood is taking its toll.

GUPTA: But spread by who?

SCHAFFER: In early 2014, a pamphlet began appearing on people's doorsteps throughout Williamsburg put out by an organization that called itself peach, parents educating and advocating for children's health.

When you look inside the pamphlet, there are sensational claims, tales from parents who claim that vaccines are responsible for all sorts of illnesses and disabilities in their in their children. So it was a real mystery to figure out who was behind this propaganda.

GUPTA: PEACH has since then reportedly changed its name, but its organizers remain anonymous to this day.

ARROYO: Fortunately, through the idea, anti-vaccination movement, we're seeing a lot more patients now than we've had in the past. We've seen patients who -- in the past, who would gladly accept vaccines with a conversation, now deny them wholeheartedly.

DASKALAKIS: It was not about religion. This community was targeted by anti-vaxxers. They released this document that they mailed 1000s of households that talked about vaccines and their link to all sorts of diseases like autism, really based on no data, or rather on false science.

GUPTA: Neighborhoods in Borough Park, Brooklyn in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, were left in crisis mode.

In order to get that fire under control, schools were temporarily shut down. Vaccines were made mandatory and you were threatened with a fine if you didn't comply. Perhaps most importantly, New York also banned religious exemptions, meaning that people could no longer use religion as an excuse not to get vaccinated. More on that part of the story later.

Coming up, one man whose work may have helped start the modern day anti-vaccine movement. And who was behind that anti-vax pamphlet?

DASKALAKIS: It's a beautiful document that's completely full of lies.



GUPTA (voice-over): If you trace the modern vaccine hesitancy movement back to some of its earliest voices, there is one name at the top of the list.

GUPTA: Who is Andrew Wakefield?

OFFIT: All right. So Andrew Wakefield is a British gastrointestinal surgeon. He published a paper in The Lancet in 1998.

GUPTA (voice-over): In that paper, Wakefield said no link had been proven. But he also asserted that there could be a correlation between autism and the MMR vaccine. That's the vaccine that can prevent measles, mumps and rubella and has been saving millions of lives for over half a century.

ALISON SINGER, PRESIDENT, AUTISM SCIENCE FOUNDATION: That report was incredibly influential. I never really thought about vaccines as being a cause until the Andrew Wakefield paper was published.

GUPTA: Now that was more than two decades ago, and at the same time, Allison Singer was raising a young child with severe autism.

SINGER: I agreed that we needed to do studies. We needed to look at whether the increase in vaccines was related to the increase in the diagnosis rate of autism.

GUPTA: It's why she founded the Autism Science Foundation, which supports autism research. She's now been leading the organization for more than a decade. And her daughter Jodie is now 23 years old.

SINGER: I also have an older brother who was diagnosed with autism. And so I grew up in the autism world. Back in the 60s, we thought that autism was caused by bad parenting. And my mother was told that that my brother's autism was her fault. She was called a refrigerator mother and told she was too cold to properly bond with my brother. And so when it came time for me to have a baby, I went for genetic testing. I talked to my obstetrician, and I said, is autism genetic? Is there any chance that I'm going to have a child with autism? And she said, no, autism isn't genetic, don't worry. And then, of course, I had a child and she was diagnosed with autism.

ANDREW WAKEFIELD, BRITISH PHYSICIAN: Measles, mumps and rubella given together, maybe too much for the immune system of some children to handle.

SINGER: The fact that, that was published in The Lancet really gave me pause. And that came out in 1998. I had my second daughter in 1999. So when it came time to make decisions about having her vaccinated, I did. I split up the MMR. And looking back, I feel very betrayed by the Lancet.

GUPTA: The impact of the Andrew Wakefield paper came around just as I became a medical reporter, so for the last nearly 20 years I've been talking about this issue.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is autism on the rise and are childhood vaccinations to blame?

GUPTA: The number of vaccines that a child gets today, compared to 20, 30 years ago has almost tripled.

GUPTA (Voice-over): Some families believe that a preservative in some childhood vaccines called the merosal is causing autism in their children. The CDC says no scientific link.

GUPTA: Are we ready to say right now as things stand that childhood vaccines do not cause autism?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There have been at least 15 very good scientific studies and the Institute of Medicine who have searched this out and they have concluded that there really is no association between vaccines and autism.

GUPTA: A new study provides further evidence, there is no connection specifically between the MMR or measles, mumps, rubella vaccine, and autism. Over the years, I've reported on dozens of studies from researchers all over the world involving millions of children, and none of them have found the link between vaccines and autism. With time, the scrutiny started to turn on the researcher himself.

And in 2010, everything came crashing down around Andrew Wakefield. Editors of the Lancet say, "It has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper are incorrect."

The Lancet retracted that paper 12 years later, saying that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield are incorrect.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Doctor who sparked fears that a childhood vaccine could be linked to autism has now been barred from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom.

WAKEFIELD: The allegations against me and against my colleagues are both unfounded and unjust.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He had misrepresented biological data. He had misrepresented clinical data.

GUPTA: Did you have some sort of preconceived notion of link between the vaccine MMR and autism before you conducted this study?

WAKEFIELD: Absolutely not, the claims to whether the vaccine caused their children harm or not came from the parents, not me.

GUPTA: But make no mistake, that research has been done. There is now a mountain of evidence that shows no causal link between vaccines and autism. And studies and hundreds of 1000s of children have shown this.

GUPTA (Voice-over): In fact, researchers are finding differences on brain scans as early as six months of age, that's before the MMR vaccine would have been given. And those brain scans can also predict which infants will be highly likely to develop autism.

GUPTA: If Autism is diagnosed that early, that should really put this whole vaccine autism debate, to sleep to rest.

SINGER: You would think when you withhold vaccines from your child, you're doing absolutely nothing to reduce the risk that that child will be diagnosed with autism. But you're absolutely increasing the risk that that child could contract and potentially die from a vaccine preventable disease.

GUPTA: Why did the Wakefield paper linger on?

SINGER: I think the Wakefield legacy is one of fear. He put a very scary idea into people's heads. And once you put that scary idea into people's heads, it's very hard to get it out.

GUPTA: Coming up, a New Yorker who went to war against the anti- vaxxers.

BLIMA MARCUS, NURSE PRACTITIONER, ORTHODOX JEWISH NURSES ASSOCIATION: If our healthcare providers don't do something, then who will? GUPTA: And later.

SERESE MAROTTA, CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER FOR FAMILIES FIGHTING FLU: And my first instinct was to put up my hand. And I sensed to eye that he dead.



GUPTA: In some ways, this should be a really short documentary, right? People should just get vaccinated. People get on their hands and knees and beg for vaccinations in many places around the world. I've seen this. And yet here where they have a choice, they have an option to many people, as it turns out, aren't getting a vaccination.

GUPTA (Voice-over): In April 2019, the New York City Mayor declared a public health emergency.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Get the measles vaccine.

GUPTA: Making measles vaccines mandatory in certain zip codes. The virus had hit the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg hardest.

People often describe this as a very insular community, was there, do you think, a deliberate targeting of this community because it was insular?

DR. OXIRIS BARBOT, FORMER NYC HEALTH COMMISSIONER: What I do know is that over the course of this outbreak, they were targeted by robocalls.

LANDA: These people anonymously started producing in mass to the tune of like 40,000 brochures would go out door-to-door, synagogue-to- synagogue, booklets of pseudoscience that they collected.

GUPTA: The Peach documents?


GUPTA: Which is all about advocating for children's health, right? How do you combat that?

DASKALAKIS: No, it's a beautiful document that's completely full of lies.

GUPTA (voice-over): This magazine was locally distributed by PEACH, formerly known as, Parents Educating and Advocating for Children's Health. CNN was unable to contact the anonymously led group.

DR. PETER HOTEZ, VIROLOGIST, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: They use seemingly innocuous or noble language. But in fact, their message is actually one that's depriving kids of safe and effective vaccines.

DASKALAKIS: They use this image of a gun with a vaccine mutil (ph) at the end. Like no, like that's not what the vaccine is like, vaccine is not a deadly weapon.

GUPTA: A group of Orthodox Jewish nurses released their own magazine. They called it PIE, parents Informed and Educated. The document addressed every myth and false hood that PEACH had spread.

MARCUS: The level of misinformation was huge. And the anti-vaccine network in the Orthodox community is a very well oiled machine. So they had their magazines, they have their phone hotlines. They started hosting events. And what we realized was that that was really effective. So we started using their methods. They are fierce in their beliefs and --


GUPTA: Nurse practitioner Blima Marcus went to war with the anti- vaxxers spreading misinformation.

MARCUS: We created this in response to a misinformation booklet called the PEACH Magazine. And it was initially not meant to really be called PIE but it's stuck.

GUPTA: She's an Orthodox Jewish nurse, who was key in stopping the outbreak.

MARCUS: They looked at cancer. They looked at autoimmune disorders --

GUPTA: Relentless in educating her community, she rallied a team of healthcare volunteers to host forums to field one on one questions, and to train doctors and nurses to communicate better with parents who were hesitant about vaccines.

GUPTA (on camera): What motivated you to do it?

MARCUS: It's just that I saw this huge hole in the community have this knowledge deficit. And if I like, if our healthcare providers don't do something, then who will?

GUPTA: Where is the anti-vaccine information coming from? I mean, what's pushing it, and inspiring and motivating it?

MARCUS: People keep asking me and I don't know the answer. There's no leadership within Orthodox Judaism that has ever said, it's OK not to vaccinate your children.

GUPTA: Do you think that what happened here could happen anywhere in the United States?

MARCUS: I sure do. If you're in a community, you appeal to their fearless parents, it can happen anywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh yeah, this is idea is -- I was right -- idea is.

MAROTTA: The dialogue has to be not only talking but also listening. Some parents, some individuals who are vaccine hesitant, if that's what we want to call them, they're scared. You know, they're thinking, gosh, this scares me. I don't know if this is the right thing to do. And I understand that as a parent.

We received an email from a family that lost their five year old boy 10 days --

GUPTA: Serese Marotta runs the organization, Families Fighting Flu.

MAROTTA: As you can tell by his smile, he was just so excited to go to kindergarten. I had absolutely no idea how dangerous flu was.

Joseph was at the time healthy, five years old. He was attending kindergarten and he became sick. He was hospitalized for 10 days. He coded and they worked on him for over 35 minutes. And then the attending physician came in to the room I was in and I remember seeing her come to the doorway. And she was sobbing. And my first instinct was to put up my hand. And I sense to eye that he died. And she's saying, I need you to come in here with me. There was a nurse giving Joseph chest compressions. And the doctors like say, I just needed to talk to him. And they walked over to Joseph's side and I have this hand. And then I just remember the attending, she was standing to our right and she just stopped and she said, I'm so sorry. And, you know, nothing prepares you for that, something prepares you for that.

GUPTA: Five-year-old, Joseph was one of 1000s of Americans who died of the flu that year that swine flu became a global flu pandemic and hundreds of 1000s of people died around the globe.

MAROTTA: I remember her saying to me, he's the 85th child to die from flu this year. And I looked at her and I said, what are you talking about? Healthy kids don't die from flu. But unfortunately, it's a reality. And it happens.

GUPTA: It's hard. It's hard to hear.

MAROTTA: It is, it is. But Joseph is not alone.

GUPTA: But there is another part of the story. And that is that Joseph did get a flu shot. It just wasn't protective against the H1N1 strain.

MAROTTA: On average, the flu vaccine is 40 to 60% effective. Why should you bother? Because anything above zero is better than zero. If you don't get vaccinated, you have zero protection. When I get my vaccines, I think about it as I'm not just doing this to protect myself. I'm not even just doing this to protect my family. I'm doing it to protect other people because somebody was my Joseph's patient zero, but somebody passed that flu virus to my son, and he died as a result of it. And I don't ever want to be somebody else's patient zero.

GUPTA: Coming up, potential patients zeros.

ETHAN LINDENBERGER: My group believing that vaccines cause autism.

BARBOT: The whole entire family came down with rotavirus. This is something that totally snuck up on us.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe that the risk of damage from the vaccine is now greater the risk of damage from the disease.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: These children have vaccine induced autism.

HOTEZ: When the anti-vaccine movement started as a fringe element, there was a strategic decision by the federal agencies and the scientific societies not to talk about it. The thinking was that'll just give it oxygen.

GUPTA: But then what was once fringe went mainstream. The internet and social media put the anti-vax movement on steroids.

HOTEZ: The federal agencies, the scientific societies, the academic societies, all kind of stuck to their guns on the old strategy don't give it oxygen. And that had a disastrous effect because it left a vacuum that allowed this anti-vaccine lobby to really flourish.

GUPTA: A lobby, Hotez says, that has become well constructed, well planned and highly effective.

HOTEZ: They'll target specific ethnic groups where they think they can make headway.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tonight there's alarming news about the worst outbreak of measles in Minnesota.

HOTEZ: So they did this with the Somali immigrant community in Minneapolis in 2017.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Don't listen to doctor, don't listen to everybody, listen to your rights --

HOTEZ: They held a town hall meetings, teleconferences et cetera convinced the Somali immigrant community that vaccines cause autism. They responded by not vaccinating their kids.

GUPTA: The result, a measles epidemic. The 21 kids ended up in the hospital. It was the same targeted strategy used in Brooklyn in recent years.


HOTEZ: I like to welcome everybody here to the Harlem vaccine forum 2019.

GUPTA: And Hotez now fears it's being used again, in Harlem, New York.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What we're dealing with today is very powerful state coercion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are told that we're misinformed.

HOTEZ: I'm quite worried they're going to go into the African American community. I'm seeing advertisements for this already, where they're calling vaccines, the next Tuskegee experiment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We will never let another Tuskegee happen again on our watch. We say no.

GUPTA: The Tuskegee experiment dates back to 1932. The U.S. government had recruited 600 African American men into a study. What those men didn't realize was that a treatment for syphilis was being withheld from them so doctors could track the disease, and then dissect their bodies once they died. It was gruesome, and the case was litigated for decades.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: During this time, did they ever give you any compensation or any money?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, after that 25 year, they gave me $25.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a time when our nation failed.

GUPTA: The surviving study participants eventually did receive an out of court settlement in the 1970. And an apology from President Clinton in the 1990s,

BILL CLINTON, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: The United States government did something that was wrong, deeply, profoundly, morally wrong.

GUPTA: A legacy of mistrust in vaccines and public health officials still runs deep in the African American community. And the anti-vax movement knows it. And they exploited it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you're vaccinating your children, for that free, inappropriate education, think again.

GUPTA: But nowadays, the anti-vax reach goes way beyond these ethnic and racial communities. It seems just about anyone could be targeted. And here's the thing, they might not even know it.

(On camera): Is there a type of person who is more likely to be an anti-vaxxer?

OFFIT: All right. So there have been a few studies on this. As a general rule, it is a Caucasian, upper middle class or upper class family where the parents are either a college educated or college and graduate school educated.

HOTEZ: Educated enough to know how to do a Google or a Yahoo search, but not educated enough to know what the heck they're googling or yahooing because of this flood of misinformation coming out of the anti-vaccine movement.

GUPTA: Meet Kristen O'Meara, her story is probably going to sound familiar. She's a mother who says she's just trying to do the best for her three children.

KRISTEN O'MEARA: I bent over backwards to make sure my children were breastfeeding until as long as they possibly could. And you know, all of these, you know, positive, healthy lifestyle habits. Definitely social media was more where I found like the virtual tribe.

GUPTA: A virtual tribe, all too willing to create doubt.

O'MEARA: My children were not vaccinated. I think I was questioning whether or not the number of vaccines were necessary, whether or not the vaccine schedule was healthy for children.

GUPTA: She got her answers. But Kristen had to learn the hard way.

O'MEARA: The whole entire family came down with rotavirus, which there's a vaccine for that. This is something that totally snuck up on us that I wasn't expecting.

GUPTA: If you talk to Kristen O'Meara now, she will say that she was lucky. Lucky that it was rotavirus as opposed to a more serious vaccine preventable disease, something that could have even been deadly. She decided to look at the data. And when she did, she got all three of her daughters up-to-date on their vaccines.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This question I asked was simple.

GUPTA: Like O'Meara, Ethan Lindenberger's mother also got caught up in the anti-vax noise on the internet.

ETHAN LINDENBERGER: But my mom, she was misinformed and misled by sources that convinced her that if she was a loving parent, she wouldn't vaccinate.

GUPTA: But for Ethan, the choice became deeply personal during his senior year of high school.

LINDENBERGER: Now, I was legally an adult. So I had to take a step back and go, OK, well, now it's on my shoulders, because if I make a decision here that hurts someone else, the only blame we place upon me, not my mom, not my family, me.

GUPTA: And like so many others looking for advice on vaccines, young Ethan turned to the internet.

LINDENBERGER: I turned to read it but I just wanted some other opinions. And in our past I had a couple 100 responses. A couple hours passed. I had a couple 1000. People were saying that they were so proud of me for making that decision and for knowing that I need to take the stand against my mom's beliefs.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The teen who defied his own parents and got vaccinated against their will, will testify in front of Congress.

LINDENBERGER: My mother would turn to anti vaccine groups online and on social media, looking for her evidence in defense rather than health officials and through critical sources.

GUPTA: To this day, Ethan's mother, Jill Wheeler believes her son is wrong. JILL WHEELER, ETHAN LINDENBERGER'S MOTHER: My son, Ethan, has no idea to fire he's feeding, one day he will. And my heart breaks for him when he realizes what he's done.

GUPTA: Coming up, holding the country accountable.

HOTEZ: I have to give them a failing grade. It's affecting the public health of the United States.


CROWD: No segregation. No discrimination.

OFFIT: You put an x on your back and become like any political situation, they targeted hate?

GUPTA: Did you anticipate that hatred?

OFFIT: No, I didn't anticipate that idea. It surprised actually.


GUPTA: And honestly, it surprised me as well. Dr. Paul Offit, after all is a respected pediatrician, a vaccine researcher and an advocate.

OFFIT: I mean, I get hate mail, I would say on a weekly basis I've been physically threatened and physically harassed and I've had three legitimate death threats, the kind of get investigated by the FBI.

GUPTA: Over the years, critics have called them everything from a terrorist to a mouthpiece for Big Pharma, pushing vaccines, they say because he receives profits from the ones he developed. One post said, Offit should be prosecuted for crimes against our children. Another I will hang you by your neck until you're dead. Offit tells everyone that he's not motivated by money, but rather driven by memories.

OFFIT: I mean, my parents were children of the 20s and 30s. They saw diphtheria as a killer of teenagers. They saw polio was a crippler. I was a child of the 50s and 60s. I had measles. I had mumps, I had German measles. I had chickenpox. I know what those diseases felt like.

GUPTA: It's that connection to the story that Dr. Paul Offit shares in common with Dr. Peter Hotez.

HOTEZ: We're looking at the eggs on the screen.

GUPTA: A world renowned virologist, researcher, and outspoken vaccine advocate. Dr. Hotez also faces recurring threats on his home, his safety, his life.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dr. Peter Hotez, another vaccine expert needs a security escort.

HOTEZ: The central tenet of the anti-vaccine media empire is to claim vaccines cause autism, so we were in a perfect position to refute all that.

GUPTA: Perfect because it's personal. You see Dr. Hotez's daughter, Rachel has autism. He authored an intimate book called, Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel's Autism.

HOTEZ: If we don't step up and do this, no one's going to do it.

RACHEL HOTEZ, PETER HOTEZ'S DAUGHTER: I'm not going to go shape in cookie.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I know but I want you to get a try.

GUPTA: When Rachel was born, and subsequently diagnosed with autism, were there any flickers of, did I miss something?

ANN HOTEZ, RACHE'S MOTHER: I did. I did blame myself. I really did. And that's the reason I think that Peter did such a deep dive into this because he had to convince me in our nightly walks, that it wasn't my fault that autism was way too complex, a disease. There are other scientific reasons involved.

P. HOTEZ: Vaccines are probably the most tested and safe pharmaceutical interventions that we know about. They're extraordinarily life-saving and their safety record is unparalleled. The likelihood that you're going to suffer a severe reaction from a vaccine that's going to land you in the hospital or worse is far less than being struck by lightning.

GUPTA: Less than one in a million, but it is still that rare case, which adds fuel to the fire of the anti-vax movement, such as the story of Hannah Poling. At 19 months old, she received her childhood vaccines, the day before she had been playful, interactive, communicative. After she received the vaccines, she became more irritable and lethargic. And months after those vaccines, she was diagnosed with encephalopathy and had symptoms on the autism spectrum. Her family, her father's neurologist sued, and they won. It was confusing for a lot of people.

SINGER: The effect of that Hannah Poling decision was to place that scary idea back into family's mind that, oh, maybe there is a link between vaccines and autism. What the court decided in no way changed the scientific studies. It doesn't negate the mountain of scientific evidence looking at vaccines and autism.

DR. JON POLING, HANNAH'S FATHER: I'm certainly not anti vaccine. But clearly what happened with our daughter was following a series of vaccinations that occurred in July.

GUPTA: The federal government conceded that her autism, her diagnosis was aggravated by vaccines.

POLING: I wouldn't have believed it was possible.

GUPTA: So what you believe is that that Hannah have some sort of predisposition and then the vaccines tipped her over the edge into developing autism. What is your belief now? POLING: I don't think that vaccines are the only way that you can tip over a child like Hannah to regress and have an encephalopathy and have regressed into autism. There are probably multiple triggers.

GUPTA: And while even Hannah's father doesn't really believe vaccines cause autism. The government settlement is the only message the anti- vax community seems to hear.


How do you think the scientific community has done Institute of Medicine/National Academy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? How have they done at educating people about vaccines and the lack of a connection to autism?

HOTEZ: Unfortunately, I have to give them a failing grade. And the reason for that is we're not hearing from the leadership of our scientific societies.

GUPTA: It's true. We don't really hear much from them. But there are online resources if families seek out the information. It's very different from what you hear on the other side.

HOTEZ: What you've got is an aggressive anti-vaccine lobby, that is using a misinformation campaign to mislead parents to thinking vaccines cause autism or other things. And as a consequence, parents are not vaccinating their kids. This anti vaccine movement, it's now so mainstream, that it's affecting the public health of the United States.

GUPTA: Coming up, what's the say this won't happen again?

OFFIT: Maybe the only way we get scared enough is when children start to die.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The U.S. measles outbreak continues to spread.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have reached a 20 year high.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That measles outbreak is spreading.

HOTEZ: For a public health official. There's no greater nightmare than a measles epidemic. So to put a measles epidemic back in the bottle must be one of the hardest things you can do.

GUPTA: As hard as that Brooklyn outbreak of measles was, experts agree that the outbreak of vaccine misinformation might have been even worse. It seems reckless, dangerous, arguably immoral. So why are anti-vaxxers willing to take this risk?

HOTEZ: I'm not even sure it matters that much what the motivation is, we just have to stop, stop. GUPTA: Something which health officials were finally able to do about a year after it all began?

MARCUS: A lot of parents are vaccinating the children. I would say these are mostly the vaccine hesitancy so now that they didn't really have a choice and they wanted the children to start school on time. They kind of dragged their heels and had the children vaccinated.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: County leaders making it official today that the measles outbreak is definitively done.

GUPTA: On September 3, 2019, New York City declared the end of its measles outbreak. They took mandatory vaccinations in targeted areas. It took more than 500 workers and more than $6 million to finally contain the crisis. In the end 654 confirmed cases of measles and the vast majority of them children, 52 hospitalizations, and 16 people treated in the ICU. Thankfully, there were zero deaths.

(On camera): What's the say this won't happen again?

ARROYO: It's going to happen again.

GUPTA: It's going to happen --

ARROYO: Yeah, for sure. It's -- I can almost guarantee.

OFFIT: It's just the anti-vaccine people that are doing all the talking.

GUPTA: They get hurt. Because Offit says the anti-vax megaphone is loud and its pockets are deep.

OFFIT: It's a cottage industry of false hope. I mean, look on some of the websites that are anti-vaccine, they have a variety of treatments and preventives for autism. It's an industry.

It was a warn our children, that was backed by a group of people who were financially benefiting, whether it was, you know, through these dietary supplements, or, you know, these sort of special cleansers that would pull metal out of your body. But it just was really unfair to parents who desperately wanted to do something, anything to help their children and these people were perfectly willing to take their mind.

GUPTA: In some cases, they are peddling unproven products and programs. And ironically, these are products that have not met the same rigorous scientific standards that vaccines have.

OFFIT: Vaccines are held to the highest standard of safety of anything else. I mean, typically those programs take years to develop and then and only then do vaccines get licensed and recommended.

GUPTA: And even after they're on the market, that scrutiny continues.

OFFIT: The Vaccine Safety Datalink constantly monitors who's getting a vaccine and who's not getting a vaccine to see whether any side effect pops up. Vaccines are held to the highest standard of safety because they need to be, because we need to maintain the public's trust in vaccines. Rest assured that the people who you're counting on in this country to monitor safety, monitor effectiveness are as skeptical as they need to be, to do that.

GUPTA: Skeptical and committed to safety because they know one simple, undeniable fact.

OFFIT: Vaccines has saved our lives. We live 30 years longer now than we did 100 years ago, one of the principal reasons is that.

GUPTA: Saving lives is what everyone is hoping for. We're in a race, the virus versus the vaccine. And vaccine hesitancy is one of those things that threatens to slow that down. Social media companies are trying to help Facebook and Instagram have banned vaccine misinformation. And many people are trying to fill that void with pro- vaccination messaging, whether it's high profile people publicly taking the vaccine or generations of United States presidents making personal appeals to the American people to get vaccinated.

Doctors, like Paul Offit, and Peter Hotez continue to be vaccine warriors. They know if not enough people get the COVID vaccine we're never truly going to get clear of this worldwide nightmare. They're willing to risk their lives against the death threats, as have other scientists like Anthony Fauci, hoping and doing anything they can to make sure that science and trust and science ultimately wins the race. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks for watching.