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An Interview with The Greater Good's Leslie Manookian

Posted May 01 2012 12:00am

Greater-good-movie By Anne Dachel

It is clear that the issue of vaccine side effects and safety is one of the most heated controversies in medicine today.  This is a topic that should be a concern for everyone, but most especially for parents.  For this reason, I urge people to watch the movie, The Greater Good, which will give you experts on both sides of the vaccine safety debate.

On The Greater Good website we're told, "THE GREATER GOOD looks behind the fear, hype and politics that have polarized the vaccine debate in America today. The film re-frames the emotionally charged issue and offers, for the first time, the opportunity for a rational and scientific discussion on how to create a safer and more effective vaccine program."

One would think that members of the press would welcome a production designed to provide coverage like this, but I found that wasn't the case. In Nov, 2011, my story, York Times Reviews The Greater Good Movie--Tells Vaccine-Injured Children to Drop Dead, was published on Age of Autism, .  It about this review by the Times .  The reporter wasn't interested in those questioning the safety claims.  In fact, we were told that even if vaccines are harming some children, "all that matters is that its victims number significantly fewer than those of the diseases vaccinations are designed to prevent."  Those chilling words are evidence that many in the media don't want to honestly and thoroughly cover the issue of vaccine safety.  But regardless of what the mainstream press is willing to report, The Greater Good is an unprecedented work that's educating the public everywhere in the US.

Leslie Manookian, Chris Pilaro, and Kendall Nelson are the three filmmakers responsible for "The Greater Good," and I was privileged to talk to Leslie about the making of the movie and about the impact it's having.

Here are my questions and from the answers Leslie provided, we all need to be asking if there is really a "greater good' being served with the current vaccination schedule.

Question: The New York Times described "The Greater Good" as an "emotionally manipulative, heavily partial look at the purported link between autism childhood immunization." How do you respond to critics like this?

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. We have received many more positive reviews than negative reviews. It is interesting that many of the charges about bias made by the NY Times critic were actually inaccurate and one has to wonder if she watched the film. We allowed experts from all sides of the issue to make their cases and share their perspectives and we presented science that is little known by the public. We also gave voice to the stories of vaccine injury that do not often get media attention. Perhaps seeing a genuine debate about the issues and this science as well as the stories of those injured was disturbing to her.

Question: On the website, "The Greater Good," we're told that the film is a mixture of a lot of different perspectives on vaccine safety.  Why is there a need for a production like this when so many people claim that the debate is over?

While it is clear that this debate is uncomfortable for many, it is far from over. I just attended an international conference on autoimmunity this week and listened to a dozen scientists present their research showing a wide spectrum of harm following vaccines and their ingredients ranging from brain damage including cognitive impairment and behavioral changes, to autism, autoimmune disease, obesity and even infertility. A growing body of science shows cause for concern and it is important that we as a society recognize that the vaccine debate is a scientific debate, not one between emotional parents and their doctors. In The Greater Good, we tried to present all sides and perspectives and in doing so to show that this issue warrants further attention and discussion.

Question: What was your intention when you started work on the film? 

We hoped that by sharing a wide variety of perspectives in a fair and balanced way, we could present all the different perspectives on the issue and let the public decide for themselves what to believe. We hoped to educate audiences that the vaccine debate is not as black and white as they may have believed, that vaccinations are a topic worth investigating and discussing, and that there is much science that needs to be done to fully understand the biological impact of vaccinations.

Question: For many parents the issue is the link between vaccines and autism. From your work on the film, should concerns over vaccine side effects be expanded?

We face several types of epidemics in the US today. We face a tragic autism epidemic and we also face an epidemic of chronic illnesses. While autism does get some attention in the mainstream media, chronic diseases related to vaccines do not and I think that needs to change. A study published last summer found that over fifty percent of all US school children suffer from some sort of chronic disease or disability including but not limited to asthma, allergies, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, obesity, diabetes and autism. While autism is now known to affect 1 in 88 children, the question of vaccine injury is much larger than autism and with over 1 out of 2 US children suffering from some sort of chronic illness, and the growing science linking these conditions to vaccines as a cofactor, it is high time we as a nation took a fresh look at our vaccine program and the health impacts it may have. We have not only a major health crisis on our hands but also an economic one with the costs of treating all these conditions not to mention the extent to which these ailments impede the competitiveness of our nation as we look to the future.

Question: What part of the film had the greatest impact on you personally?

I find all the stories painful, but I still cry every time I watch the Christner family story. For those who have not seen the film yet, Stephanie Christner is a doctor featured in the film who always followed her pediatrician's advice. As such, she followed the AAP and CDC guidelines on vaccinations and lost her 5-month old daughter to vaccine induce brain inflammation. As a mother, I can't imagine anything more traumatic than losing a child. What is also tragic about this story is that the baby had an adverse reaction to her 2-month shots but the reaction was disregarded by the pediatrician. Had the pediatrician recognized the vaccine reaction and stopped vaccinating the baby, she might be here today.

The other aspect of making the film that affected me deeply is the plight of all those kids with autism and other vaccine injuries who continue to be dismissed by the mainstream medical profession. It is such a travesty that these kids and families have been so badly affected in the first place but then this is only made worse by the treatment they receive from much of the mainstream. It is heart breaking.

Hartmann: The Science, the Politics & the Danger of Vaccines

"Claire Dwoskin, National Vaccine Information Center and Leslie Manookian, The Greater Good documentary film. What you don't know about the science of and politics behind vaccines."


Question: During your interview on the Thom Hartmann Show back in November, 2011, you discussed the poor design of the research that is continually used as proof that vaccines are safe.  Why are officials able to cite flawed science like this?

It seems that there has been a real breakdown in investigative journalism on this issue such that reporters just accept what authorities say about vaccines rather than fact checking their statements. It seems that vaccines have become a bit of a cultural belief and therefore are not subject to the same degree of analysis that might be the case for other topics. If reporters did fact check the statements of those they interviewed, they would find that the body of empirical scientific research examining a potential link between mercury and autism favors a link 3 to 1, that there is research linking aluminum to autism, that there are no large controlled studies monitoring the health outcomes of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children, that vaccine ingredients have not all been tested for safety either singly or in combination, that vaccines are given simultaneously but studied for safety separately, that vaccine safety trials are allowed to use mercury, aluminum or another vaccine as a placebo, that there is no active system in place for monitoring adverse reactions to vaccines, etc. Because we all want to believe that we can protect our children and ourselves, it has been easier for the media and authorities to gloss over concerns and reassure the public than to discuss the genuine concerns and gaps in the research.

Question: Since finishing "The Greater Good," how have you reached the public with it?

The Greater Good premiered at the Dallas International Film Festival in April last year and was an official selection at film festivals around the world. The film won the Koroni Award from the School of Public Health at the University of Alabaman, Birmingham for a documentary feature addressing an issue of importance to public health.  The film also won the Cinematic Vision award from the Amsterdam Film Fest. Since making the film festival circuit, the film has been screening in homes, communities, health care offices, at conferences and in State houses across the nation  and world and we have about 1,000 people signed up to host screenings in their communities.

Question: How did you choose the people that were included in "The Greater Good"?

Making a film is part planning and part chance. When we began the project, we had a list of experts we wanted to interview and we had ideas for a few families. But making a film is a long and organic process and what came into being in the end is a mixture of planning and chance. We set out to interview a variety of experts and health officials, some ended up working with us and others did not. We intended to film with families who had had children injured by infectious diseases as well as those who had been injured by vaccines but we could not get anyone with disease injured kids to participate. Those with children injured by infectious diseases did not want to appear in a film that also told the stories of vaccine injured. We wanted to follow a family in which the woman was pregnant to learn with them as they learned about this nuanced issue but it never worked out. You never know where a film is going to go, what doors will be opened, what late breaking news will occur and so you set out to follow a plan but you react and work with whatever comes up.

Question: What was your basic purpose in producing "The Greater Good"?

I made The Greater Good with two wonderful, award-winning filmmakers, Chris Pilaro and Kendall Nelson. The film was truly a team effort. We made THE GREATER GOOD as we wanted to look behind the fear, hype and politics that have polarized the vaccine debate in Americatoday. We wanted to re-frame the emotionally charged issue and offer, for the first time, the opportunity for a rational and scientific discussion on how to create a safer and more effective vaccine program.

Question: How has "The Greater Good" been received by the general public and by the medical community/public health officials?

We have been thrilled with the support we have received from all corners. We have had doctors and scientists applaud us and stand up after our screenings to congratulate us on the film, as mentioned before, we have won some awards including an award from the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, we have a medical consultant who wants us to show the film to 50 hospitals and thousands of doctors in her network, and we have plans to show the film across the nation. Many of these people are angry and outraged to learn there is more to this topic than they had realized and all are grateful for us having made a fair film that addresses this very important topic facing us today. The reception from the general public has also been wonderful. People have written to us thanking us for explaining how this issue is not black and white, people have written to us thanking us for creating a tool that they can share with their friend and family, and people have thanked us for making a film that helps them to feel empowered about making decisions for their families.

Question: How can experts continue to ignore the countless thousands of claims of regression following vaccination in light of the exponential increase in autism?

With the recent release of the new autism numbers showing that autism has increased 11% per year from 2000 to 2008 and that the condition now affects 1 in 88 kids and 1 in 54 boys, it is becoming more difficult to ignore this health menace. Quite simply, we have reached the tipping point where everyone knows someone with an affected child. Additionally, there was a poll done by U of Michigan which found that 89% of US parents rank the safety of childhood vaccines as their number one medical research concern. When 89% of the parent population is worried about something and officials keep reassuring them that there is no problem, those officials have a credibility problem that is not going to be rectified easily. But I think there is another very large piece to the puzzle that is not well understood or reported and that is the growing body of science. As I mentioned, I just attended a very large, very mainstream conference on autoimmune disease and there was a day dedicated to vaccine safety. The scientists presented data and papers cataloguing a broad spectrum of ailments and conditions following vaccinations, one of them being autism. With more and more scientists hearing this research and dipping their toes into the pond and importantly getting their research published, it is going to be increasingly difficult to discount the experiences of these thousands if not millions of parents.

Question: How willing were public health officials to talk with you about vaccine injuries and specifically the link between vaccines and autism?

We were grateful for the time and participation of officials from FDA and CDC. Sadly, the official we approached from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program office would not participate. The public officials we interviewed adhered to the assertion that vaccines do not cause autism. They pointed to a number of epidemiological studies that have found no connection. What they did not discuss is that those studies were all conducted by individuals who had political, economic or ideological vested interests in an outcome showing no connection between vaccines and autism. What's more, they stated that there is NO research showing a link between vaccines and autism, a statement which is not true - there is research connecting the two, it is just not discussed by officials or in the mainstream media. What was also interesting was that all the officials admitted that vaccines harm some children. What is really at issue here is how often these injuries happen and how broad the spectrum of adverse reactions might be. While officials state the reactions are rare, there is no study they can point to as a reference to back up that claim. Also interesting is their reticence to conduct a large controlled study comparing the health outcomes of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children. We heard that there are not enough unvaccinated children to conduct the study, that the study would be hard to conduct and that it would be difficult to interpret. There are about 4 million children born each year in the US and assuming 1.5% of them are not vaccinated, that means there are 60,000 kids that could be in a study. It is also dubious that worried parents would be reassured by statements that this research is not being done because it is either difficult to do or interpret.

Question: How would you summarize the attitude of vaccine industry people over the growing fear that vaccines are responsible for serious side effects?

This is pure speculation on my part but it would seem that there is a general tendency to want to downplay vaccine adverse reactions in the vaccine industry. Many of the pharmaceutical industry's blockbuster drugs have gone off patent in recent years and there is not much growth for them anywhere except in vaccines. Vaccines are booming business as the addressable market is huge - they are designed to treat the entire population, in theory, whereas drugs treat sick people, a much more limited population. What's more, vaccine makers are immune from any liability relating to their products, even if they could have made a safe vaccine. In the US, we have a special vaccine court that is funded by a 75 cent tax on every vaccine. If a person has an injury from a vaccine, they must apply to this court and if they are unhappy with the court's decision, they have no recourse in a court of law. Vaccine makers are entirely immune. In early 2011 the US Supreme Court ruled that vaccine injured could no longer sue in civil court. Given this backdrop, it is easy to understand how eager the vaccine makers would be to defend their products and why they would be reticent to acknowledge problems with them.

Question: How have they responded?

It is interesting that there has been what would appear to be a coordinated effort to attack exemptions to vaccinations across the nation. InVermont quite recently, the Vermont Chairperson for ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a lobby group for the corporate world, is also a Vermont Senator and he introduced legislation just before Christmas that would strip Vermonters of their right to philosophical and religious exemptions to vaccinations. In the end, the bill was unsuccessful as so many concerned citizens fought back for the right to decide what they put into their bodies and how they keep their families well. And this kind of attack is happening across the US. There was a bill introduced in Maryland that would allow children as young as 9 who enter a drug store to be vaccinated with any CDC recommended vaccine without parental consent and there is a bill in California right now that would make a parent sit before a doctor each year to be educated about vaccine benefits in order to receive an exemption. In addition to these legislative initiatives, every time we have a public screening of The Greater Good there is a flurry of opinion pieces in the local newspapers.

Question: Since this controversy shows no signs of going away, what do you see happening next?

A couple of things are happening in this debate today that I believe will have a large impact on what happens in coming years. Firstly, more and more kids are chronically ill. A study last year found that over 50% of American kids have a chronic illness or disability. The implications of this are that everyone knows someone who is sick and it is probably one of their kids or a sibling, etc. The next thing that is happening is that parents are taking matters into their own hands and choosing to delay vaccines, to withhold some, or to not vaccinate at all and they are mobilizing to fight for the right to choose whether to vaccinate in states across the US. At the same time, more and more research is being done that shows that vaccines may be responsible for this host of chronic illness and how that might be the case. Lastly, more and more prominent people are speaking out and voicing publicly their concerns that vaccines and the way we use them, may be at least partly responsible for the chronic illness epidemics we face today. I think the upshot of all this is that we are almost at the point where it will very quickly become difficult for the powers that be to continue defending the status quo and instead they will have to conduct a vaccinated versus unvaccinated study and to give more the public more choice. This situation is beginning to spiral out of control and I believe we are very near the point where the authorities will lose all credibility unless they act.

Question: Many people claim that this is just about the science and all the science is in; vaccines don't cause autism.  Can you tell us what's missing?

There is a huge amount of science that is missing but at the same time, there is mounting science showing just how inaccurate the contention that vaccines don't cause autism is. As mentioned, I attended a conference this past week where scientist after scientist presented their papers on how vaccines or their components are causing infertility, obesity, behavioral changes, cognitive impairment, autoimmune dysfunction, and yes autism. While much of this work has been done in animals, what is clear is that vaccines and their components are causing a wide range of adverse impacts in animals that parallel those we are seeing in our kids and we can no longer pretend this is not the case. Additionally, more scientists are entering the fray and are conducting this much needed research and finding out that there is cause for concern. One of the things we are calling for with the film is to fill in the gaps in the research. What we mean by this is that the following needs to happen:

1.    All ingredients must be studied singly and in combination with all other ingredients to prove safety.

2.    Vaccines must be studied singly and in all combinations in which they might be administered to prove safety.

3.    Vaccine trials must use a true placebo not another vaccine or active substance like mercury or aluminum.

4.    The cumulative effects of the vaccine schedule must be studied to determine long-term impact.

5.    A vaccinated versus unvaccinated study must be conducted to ascertain long-term health outcomes of the continuously expanding schedule.

6.    The impact of vaccine ingredients on our genetic makeup must be determined.

7.    The risks of the culture media in which vaccines are grown and the long-term impact on the human body must be determined.

8.    An 'active' adverse reactions monitoring system must be implemented.

9.    Vaccines must not be fast tracked.

Leslie Manookian gave me her view of the future and she has a lot of hope.

The coming few years will be critical for the issue of vaccine safety, and I hope you will get involved. Our tagline for the film is “If you think you know everything about vaccines… Think Again. Please visit our website for details and resources to help you do that, including a discussion/facilitation guide, tips for hosting a screening, an FAQ, links to studies and resources mentioned in the film and much more available at: .

One particularly important policy issue emerging in the coming months is the protection of state level exemptions to vaccines, for philosophical religious and medical reasons. It is important that all 50 states give families the right to all three of these exemptions. Coalitions are forming across the country to educate their communities about the complex issue of vaccine safety. These groups include natural health practitioners, families, midwives, doulas, nurses, teachers, elected leaders and vaccine safety advocates of all stripes. I encourage you to reach out to groups in your community and learn what is happening in your state. Collaborating on a screening is a great way to get started. I believe that together we can create a world where

  • Vaccines can be made safer

  • Doctors and parents are educated about adverse reaction to vaccines, so that these reactions may be treated appropriately thereby reducing long-term impact

  • Parents have the information they need to make informed choices about vaccines

  • Schools and doctors respect and value parents’ rights to choose how they keep their families healthy

  • Families feel safe to make their own choices regarding their family’s health and well being without fear of expulsion from school or being excluded from their communities

  • Scientists are free to pursue research into vaccine safety without fear of jeopardizing their income or career prospects

  • All 50 states uphold family’s rights to exemption from vaccination for religious, philosophical or medical reasons

  • The top priority is health and wellness, and all vaccines go through a vigorous due diligence process for safety

I hope you will visit our website and consider bringing the film to your community and to those you love. You can stream the film, buy a DVD or share either as a gift. Consider hosting an event yourself, or make a donation to our engagement campaign online to help us bring the film to families, healthcare practitioners and policymakers nationwide so they too can "Think Again" about vaccine safety issues.

Leslie Manookian


BNP Pictures

Anne Dachel is Media Editor for Age of Autism. You can subscribe to her newsfeed at

Posted by Age of Autism at May 25, 2012 at 5:45 AM in Anne Dachel Permalink

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