San Diego students tackle vaccine controversy

The Don't Wait Vaccinate Committee in District 5340 (California) has been meeting monthly since 1994.
Photo Credit: Amnon Ben-Yehuda

From the August 2015 issue of The Rotarian

A group of teenage journalism students in suburban San Diego were in the early stages of a new project – an educational film funded by a Rotary grant – when their teacher's phone rang. A prominent blogger had caught wind of what they were doing from a local news story, and wasn't pleased. The fledgling film came under fire almost overnight as ripples of protest spread through the blogosphere. With calls pouring in before shooting had even begun, the advisers considered halting the project, questioning whether it would be worth the controversy surrounding its subject matter: vaccines.

"I've been involved with immunization initiatives for over 20 years now," says Amnon Ben-Yehuda, one of the San Diego Rotary members who had contacted the Emmy-winning broadcast journalism program at Carlsbad High School about a health education project, initially conceived as a 15-minute film about the immune system, in 2011. "We knew there were people out there who were against vaccines, but they didn't represent a force we had to deal with until this project."

Ben-Yehuda chairs a Rotary districtwide committee that works with local health agencies to increase vaccination coverage. He's seen vaccine-preventable diseases affect even affluent neighborhoods, where the barrier isn't access to vaccines but skepticism about their safety. "For about the last 10 years, we've recognized that the important thing is education," he says. "We began to realize that we were repeating the same message and not getting anywhere. Young people have to learn about immunization before they become parents, so we started working with schools."

In addition to producing a live daily news broadcast, journalism students at Carlsbad can audition to work on documentary films as an after-school activity. Past features have tackled tough topics: One explores the legacy of the Holocaust, and another focuses on food insecurity among military families. Students are currently covering school shootings as part of a national project with PBS NewsHour. "What impressed us was that the Holocaust film came with lesson plans," Ben-Yehuda says, "and it's been approved by the California Department of Education for use in schools." The Rotary Club of San Diego secured grants from District 5340 and local community organizations to support the health education project, and the students got to work.

"We had no idea at that time that vaccination was such a controversial topic – it certainly wasn't on my radar," says Doug Green, the Carlsbad High School journalism teacher who worked on the film with a team of 16 students and a parent-volunteer producer. "When we got into it and found there are people who seriously doubt the safety of vaccines, particularly parents of children with autism, we decided to incorporate that." The students spent the next year interviewing medical experts in epidemiology and the treatment of autism, parents of autistic children who believe vaccines cause autism, parents of children who died from vaccine-preventable diseases, and their peers.

Some students weren't convinced at first that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks. Hannah Evans, whose brother is autistic, shared her evolving views on camera and in a blog post. "It was different for me than the other student filmmakers," she wrote. "Autism affects nearly every moment of my family's life. I had heard stories, and I believed there simply had to be a connection between autism and vaccines. Making this film changed my mind."

The turning point came when Evans learned about herd immunity – the idea that everyone, including newborns and people with compromised immune systems, benefits when most members of the community are immunized against a disease, because opportunities for outbreaks are limited. "I started to recognize the benefits of vaccines – especially protecting weaker members of society – instead of just contemplating the risks," she says.

The students' reflections are woven into the narrative alongside formal interviews and playful graphics (such as a fictional "zombie virus" that helps illustrate how illnesses spread). That interplay is central to what the advisers call peer-to-peer filmmaking. "Part of the premise of the film is the filmmakers' discovering the topic themselves," Green says, and breaking it down for an audience of their peers.

San Diego Rotary members saw the finished film, a 40-minute feature called "Invisible Threat," at a private screening in early 2013, though ongoing attention from anti-vaccine activists delayed its wider release for several months. On the eve of a screening with legislators in Washington, D.C., an anti-vaccination organization issued a statement calling for congressional action against what it dubbed "a propaganda piece" for the pharmaceutical industry, to no avail.

In a series of op-eds in the San Diego Union-Tribune and Huffington Post, Rotary International General Secretary John Hewko drew connections between the domestic vaccine controversy and the fight against polio. "Playing the blame game won't help," he wrote, noting that we can reduce the number of vaccine refusals "by building goodwill and trust, not through confrontation. That's how the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has over the years been able to win the hearts and minds of parents wary of the oral polio vaccine in developing countries."

"Invisible Threat" received an award for courage in journalism from the San Diego Press Club in October, and it's been endorsed as an educational tool by 300 health organizations so far, including the Mayo Clinic and the Autism Science Foundation, plus about 80 universities and 20 public school districts. A chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which hosted a screening at its national conference, uses the film to teach medical residents how to overcome vaccine hesitancy. Plans for Spanish and French versions are underway.

"The film has a life of its own now," Ben-Yehuda says. "Our dream is to see Rotary clubs pick up the project in their own communities and work through local boards of education to get it into school systems. It's rich material for teachers to work with. There are issues of science, issues of history, issues of social responsibility, and these issues are all interconnected."

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