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“A new documentary about childhood immunizations, The Greater Good, could intensify debate around the potential dangers of vaccines.” — Anthony Kaufman, Wall Street Journal Review
“Deftly examined… provocative… film is an effective eye opener.” — Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times
“What is being said is staggering, especially if you don’t know too much about the science of and politics behind vaccines.” — Veronica Ferdman, LA Weekly
Leslie ManookianA Wall Street Insider Investigates Vaccine Safety
An Interview with Leslie Manookian, Writer and Producer of the Award-Winning Documentary, The Greater Good
As a Wall Street insider in the booming 1990s, Leslie Manookian witnessed the routine prioritization of pharmaceutical profits over public and individual health. In 2003, wrestling with a crisis of conscience, she left her lucrative and high-powered career at its peak to pursue a documentary investigation into the imploding vaccine safety issue. In this candid interview, Leslie shares her journey from confusion to clarity through a labyrinth of interviews with players on both sides of the issue, ignored research gaps, marketing tactics she recognized from her Wall Street days, and intimate, bedside views of the wreckage families with vaccine-injured and killed children face every day. Leslie believes the vaccine safety issue is a “sleeping dog now awakening” as part of a larger, global movement away from industry dictated choices and toward the more scientifically and ethically defensible respect for individual choice.
While the film’s stated goal is to educate and spur rational discussion, its final impact will not only lead the viewer to a greater understanding of the vaccine safety issue, but to the discovery of what and who is sacrificed when informed choice is exchanged for the promise of The Greater Good.
Lisa: As an editor for a family wellness magazine, I know from talking with parents that many people believe you must be the mother of an affected child. But that assumption is far from the real truth. So share with us who you are and why you wrote and produced a documentary on vaccine safety.
Leslie: You know, it’s kinda funny. I was actually a Wall Street executive. I went to the University of Chicago to get my MBA and after that went to work for Goldman Sachs, and Goldman Sachs transferred me to London. After a couple of years in London, I went to work for one of my clients, Alliance Capital and ran their European Growth Portfolio Management and Research business for about seven years. It was during that time that I started to have questions about what I was doing. Eliot Spitzer was investigating the Wall Street banks for different kinds of corruption and I just started to feel more and more uneasy. I definitely saw evidence of conflict of interest and other activities that concerned me. I just started down a path and thought, “someday I am going to leave and commit the rest of my life to making a difference on the planet.”
Fast forward a couple of years, I met this man who told me that vaccines could cause harm. I was stunned by this because I had never heard anyone say anything negative about vaccines. I had always believed they were the greatest invention of human kind. I’d always gotten my flu shots and never questioned anything about them. Then he told me about a book and urged me to read it. Because I had a certain amount of experience, being on the inside of the corporate world and on Wall Street and having an understanding that conflicts of interest sometimes lead to profits being prioritized over, for instance, public health or individual interests, I was open to it on some level, but consciously I thought the guy was crazy.
But I read that book, and I was stunned by it. In the back of the book there were over 900 references to mainstream medical literature that documented all sorts of ailments after vaccines. I was so stunned by this, I decided then and there that someday I was going to make a movie on this issue and investigate for myself whether or not there was any truth to what the author had written. I wanted to look these officials in the eye myself and find out what we did and didn’t know about vaccines. And that was really the beginning of the whole journey for me. And that is why I made The Greater Good.
Lisa: How many years did you spend studying the vaccine issue and then writing the movie?
Leslie: I worked on this for about ten years. I left Wall Street the summer of 2003, but I started looking into the issue in 2001.
Lisa: After you had your script in hand, a women’s art foundation picked it up as a nonprofit educational project.
Leslie: Women Make Movies provided us with the 501C3 nonprofit status so we could take donations in order to make the film. We set out to make the film fair and balanced, to explore this discussion from the perspective of the authorities who are strongly supportive of vaccines, from the researchers, experts and doctors who question vaccines and from the perspective of parents who have been affected by vaccines. We felt the best way to do that was to do it as a nonprofit. We didn’t do this to make money. We did this to really find out what we do and don’t know about vaccines and to share that with the public.
Lisa: Vaccine safety is such a polarized issue right now. When you began to approach people on both sides, and it looks like you have all of the major figures, including Paul Offit and Walter Orenstein, how did you win their trust?
Leslie: Well, we really wanted to speak to individuals who had given their lives to vaccines, some of them supporting vaccines and some of them questioning vaccines, but all of them committed to their perspective. We went into it with very open minds, wanting to speak with all of these different individuals, to hear what they had to say and then to weave it in together with the stories of the families so the viewers could assess for themselves what they felt about it and thought about it. I think we gained their trust because we treated everyone with integrity and respect, and because we tried to treat the film with real respect as well, and the whole subject with the respect that it’s due. I mean, the whole idea of vaccination is a very noble cause. The question is: do we really understand the full impact of it?
I have to say, in all candor, we would go into interview Dr. Paul Offit from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and we would come out feeling that his argument and reasoning were very, very compelling. And the same would be true of all of the other experts we interviewed who were strongly supportive of vaccines and in the “Vaccines Can Do No Harm” camp.
It wasn’t until we would go and interview the other experts, scientists, researchers, physicians, who had misgivings about vaccines, that we would then be persuaded to understand that there actually are gaps in the research. I think coming at it from that perspective, that we don’t know and we want to learn, helped everybody to be open to sharing with us what their perspectives were. I think it is a much better film as a result of that.
Lisa: The film says its goal is to promote rational discussion around the vaccine safety issue, but some people are going to find it difficult to believe that this is possible. What emerges in these interviews with scientists from both sides is a difference in worldviews. We hear from scientists and researchers who are embedded in an industrial, reductionist model of thinking that is well structured to endorse a “one-size-fits-all” mass vaccination policy. And then you move over to the emerging science behind an integrated, holistic worldview, or the wellness paradigm, and you have researchers and scientists saying, no, you must consider the individual, there’s no such thing as “one-size-fits-all” and that is a dangerous approach. So where, between these two worldviews, did you find any ground for rational discussion, because I think that is what we are all looking for?
Leslie: Clearly, one of the most important things we learned from the researchers was that not all human beings are the same biologically, not all children are the same biologically, and most importantly, that this issue is not black and white. I think there are those who try to put that message out there to the public – that this issue is black and white and that vaccines can only do good – and that is just not really accurate. The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, that was signed into law by Ronald Reagan, acknowledges that vaccines can injure and can kill some children. This act set up a trust fund that compensates the families of those kids.
The question is, how often do vaccines cause harm? But we really don’t know. Some people may look at their medical background and decide, for example, because of a predilection for allergies, that maybe vaccines aren’t worth the risk for them. Some families may choose, based on their medical background, vaccines are right for them. What we tried to do with the film is to help people understand that we should all be free to choose. That we are not all the same, and that we should respect those who make other choices than ourselves.
Lisa: And you found as the science supporting individual choice emerges, the public awareness of the issue is also changing?
Leslie: In the past this issue may have been considered fringe or only a small portion of the population was interested in it, but this is no longer the case. This is one of the most mainstream issues today. I think it is one of the most critical issues facing our nation and world. There were a couple of polls recently that point to that. In late 2010, the University of Michigan polled Americans and found that 89% of parents classified vaccine safety research as their number one priority in healthcare. There is no way that anyone can argue that this issue is fringe.
More recently, Reuters and NPR did a poll that found nearly 31% of American parents with children under the age of 18 have concerns about childhood vaccines. The same poll found that 64% of American adults between the ages of 35 and 64 have a more negative perception of vaccines today than they did five years ago. Making a film that addressed that very mainstream issue was a priority for us, and I think we did it very successfully.
Lisa: The film does an extraordinary job of allowing everyone a chance to present their side of the issue, as well as the families’ day to day experience of caring for injured children, or grieving the death of a child. I know parents are desperate to have an open dialogue with practitioners who understand the issue and then to be supported to make the right choice for their family. But, it is interesting that as the science supporting informed choice is emerging, we have active political and public policy barriers being erected.
The renown financial forecaster, Michael Belkin, has written about the “vaccine bubble” (like the tech stock and housing bubbles that were artificially inflated for profit). He believes the reason so many avenues for informed choice have been closed is because informed choice doesn’t fit into the marketing plan of investors and pharmaceutical companies for the 200 and some vaccines in the pipeline. As a financial expert and an investigative film maker, you can address this question on many levels: where is the intersection of public health policy and vaccine product marketing?
Leslie: The data point we put into the film is that pharmaceutical companies are poised to sell over 20 billion dollars in vaccines this year. In the next year or two, that number is over 30 or 35 billion dollars. Clearly there is a commercial interest here because many of the blockbuster drugs for the major pharmaceutical companies have gone off patent. What happens when these drugs go off patent is that they are open to being made by generic producers and their profit margins collapse. As an industry facing patent expiration, they are looking for new sources of profit.
One of the pharmaceutical analysts that I worked with in London at Goldman Sachs taught me something a long time ago, and that is there are not very many unmet medical needs in the pharmaceutical world. So there is this search for new areas that they can treat. When you think about a drug, a drug treats sick people, but a vaccine can theoretically treat the entire population of the world. From a profitability standpoint, that’s a hugely more attractive market than just a drug that might have very, very limited appeal or application. I do think there is a question here that needs to be addressed and that is, are these vaccinations being created because there is a real public health issue or because of a commercial issue?
I think it is very interesting that the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which is a sub board of the CDC, recommended that all boys get the HPV vaccine this month. What is interesting is that we don’t know what the long term side effects are. We do know in the first nine months of 2011 there were reports of 25 deaths following Gardasil (HPV vaccine). We know there have been over 20,000 adverse reactions reported following that vaccination. We don’t know how long the immunity lasts from these vaccines. So there are a lot of question marks.
Five years ago, was anyone talking about anal warts as a public health issue? Or even cervical cancer? I don’t know of anybody who was afraid. But today, there are people who live in fear. And today, this is supposedly a major health problem that needs to be addressed by a vaccine that carries with it real risks. I think it is important for everybody to understand that even the FDA says that vaccines are pharmaceutical products and like any pharmaceutical product, they carry risks. The idea that vaccines can only do good is not an accurate portrayal of the situation. We need to be informed, and we need to make a decision as to whether every vaccine is right for us, whether we are willing to accept those risks. I don’t think commercial interests should play any role in that. But clearly there is pressure for that.
To address this from a different angle, the governor of California, Jerry Brown, in October 2011 signed a bill that will allow the state of California to vaccine girls, 12 and older, for sexually transmitted diseases without parental consent. Now, the question is, is that because our children are really at huge risk of developing cervical cancer? I think that is why we have always gotten pap smears. Or is it because we’ve got a captive market there and it is much easier to influence a 12 year-old girl with the authority of a school administrator, than a parent? I think there has been disappointment in the stock markets and the regulatory arena with the uptake of Gardasil because only about 50% of all girls have actually taken the vaccine, at least one shot of it. An even lower percentage have taken all three doses of it.
So yes, there is a real intersection between what is a public health issue and what is a corporate interest and who should be making these decisions? There is clearly pressure being placed on the political leadership to do what is best for the corporate world. I’m not sure that that is very comfortable for most parents. I think that is why parents are standing up more and more and questioning.
Lisa: The “reasoning” behind barriers to informed choice is very confusing for parents. I know if my son went to school with an aspirin in his pocket he would be facing serious reprimands from the school. But now we’re talking about our children getting on school buses, going to our tax-funded school and being vaccinated by the school for a sexually-transmitted disease without our knowledge. If your child is vaccinated with or without your knowledge and has a reaction, as of February of this year, the US Supreme Court has now shut down the avenue of suing vaccine manufacturers for the compensation for the lifetime of cost you will be facing for that injured child. So again, where is the ground for having a rational discussion?
Leslie: There are so many issues that come up for parents. Just one is, if your child has a seizure after vaccination, how will you know what caused it? If your child starts to have vision impairment, which is one of the side-effects reported after Gardasil, how will you know what caused it? And who is actually monitoring what happens after that vaccine is administered? Is the school? The school nurse? A teacher? Who is going to be responsible?
Clearly vaccinating kids, applying a medical product to them, without any kind of accountability, well, it just doesn’t seem very responsible to me. And then, as you very rightly brought up, there is this whole issue of liability. The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program that I mentioned, set up a special vaccine court for families to go and apply to and it was supposed to make it easier for families to get compensation for a vaccine injured child, or adult. It required families to go through the vaccine court first, and if they were not happy with the outcome, they could then go and sue the drug manufacturer in court.
In February of 2011, the US Supreme Court ruled that parents can no longer sue in civil court, even if the vaccine manufacturer could have made a safer product. That is staggering to me, as an American citizen and as a parent. How is it that any product manufacturer can have zero liability for making their product? That just doesn’t make any sense. And given the fact that we already have a law that acknowledges that vaccines can injure and cause harm to some children it makes even less sense, but yes, this is what has happened.
I do think that the corporate world is pushing a little bit too hard and that parents are starting to get frustrated. When I mentioned those statistics about how concerned parents are and how the perception of vaccines have deteriorated in the last five years, I think it points to this idea that people are feeling that they are being dictated to and losing too much power and that they should be able to make these choices.
If you look at what is happening globally, I know it is a far cry from our country, but there are all of these revolutions happening in the last six to 12 months across the Middle East and Northern Africa. And there were riots that were really not explained in Britain last summer. In our country, there have been a bunch of recalls and citizen movements and all sorts of activities to try and, I think, for individual citizens to try and assert more power over their lives. I think we are getting to the point where people are ready and willing to stand up and say, “I should be able to make choices about what goes into my child’s body, in his food, in his medications, in his vaccines.” There are organizations springing up that oppose the marketing of drugs and junk food to children. I think there is sleeping dog that is awakening as these issues are becoming more mainstream and that people are starting to stand up for their rights and informed choices. I think things are going to change a lot in the next six to 12 months because of this shift in the collective consciousness, or whatever you want to call it.
Lisa: There seems to be a hopeful message embedded in all of this, that the vaccine issue is not this isolated issue, standing off to the side by itself, but a part of a greater, global movement away from industrial ideals and control and toward individual empowerment and choice. I talk about the need to see the Big Picture, this global shift, with parents who want to create wellness with their children and make conscious choices. If you are aware and watching now, you can see the industrial worldview, based on 500 year-old science and reflected as a disease model in healthcare, has run its course. All fields of science are now moving us toward an integrated, holistic worldview, reflected as a wellness model in healthcare. However, we’re in the caught up in the middle of this shift at a time when wellness, and its necessary component of informed choice, is viewed as competition for the products of the industrial model and its corporate strongholds. It helps to see the Big Picture, because this larger perspective also helps to resolve some of the conflicting studies parents read.
Leslie: I would agree very much with what you are saying. I think what is interesting is how the science is there. There was a study in Australia recently that showed the children of adults who had Pink’s disease, the inability to excrete mercury, were six times more likely to have autism than the general population at large. Now that is a very, very interesting finding. Essentially, there are people who cannot eliminate or excrete mercury from their bodies. And the children of those families are six times more likely to have autism.
Clearly, we are not all the same. Clearly, we need medicine that addresses us as individuals. And clearly, the vaccine program as it is today is a one-size-fits-all approach. Independent scientists are finding out that is not the best approach. We need to understand what people’s individual sensitivities are. We need to find out and understand what a child’s medical history and family background are, and take all of these things into consideration when deciding what their health care approach should be. I think that applies on so many levels. People are choosing to fight for their right to raw milk, for example, as it is a drink that has been consumed for millennia. The point is, people are trying to assert their own power about the choices they make. Recently the judge in a case against raw milk said it was not a personal right to decide what you eat.
Lisa: That judge is now working for Monsanto.
Leslie: Most Americans will bristle at that kind of assertion that I shouldn’t be able to choose what I put into my body. And this is why more and more people are asking for labeling of genetically modified products. They are asking for the right to consume raw milk. They are asking for choice in vaccinations. They are asking for choice on health care. There are other documentaries out there about how people have had to fight for the right to treat illness with alternative approaches. I think all of this reflects this mood in the world today: that people want more freedom and more rights. As that mood rises, there is more pressure applied to take away some of those rights.
For example, in the state of Washington last year, there was a law passed that required parents who claimed philosophical exemption from vaccines to go before a medical authority every single year and have them sign off that you truly understand the risks of not vaccinating your child. What is interesting is that the law requires doctors to inform parents of all of the risks of vaccination as well, but I am not sure that that is done in every single doctor’s office before that vaccine is administered. There’s this double-edged sword that doesn’t seem really appropriate here, given that vaccines are pharmaceutical products.
Lisa: I know The Greater Good has been screened internationally and is winning awards and favorable reviews. How is it being received by audiences?
Leslie: We have had many doctors come to screenings at film festivals and say thank you for making this film and thank you for putting in there the story of Dr. Stephanie Christner, whose baby died after a vaccination. And thank you for putting in there that she said that she wasn’t taught very much, if anything, about vaccines in medical school, because they feel the same way. They are not taught a whole lot about vaccines except how to give them. They are not taught how they are tested or what the safety studies entail or anything like that. So, we’ve had tremendous reception by physicians who say “thank you”, thank you for helping to educate them on the issue and for creating a space for people to come together and discuss the issue.
We’ve also gotten some wonderful awards. One was from the Amsterdam Film Festival for expression in cinema. That was not surprising to me. But what was quite surprising to me was that we won an award from the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama for addressing an important and timely public health issue. That we were a bit taken aback by because we weren’t really sure how those kinds of institutions would take the film. But they thought it was a fantastic, fair and balanced approach and gave us their Koroni Film Award. We hope that every medical school, nursing association and every medical authority in the nation and globally will screen our film and join the discussion so we can talk about where we really are with respect to the research, and what we do and don’t know about vaccines.
Lisa: It seems like this documentary is right on time and will fill a great need for practitioners and parents. That you have taken the time to sit down with people representing both sides of the issue, who have devoted their lives to vaccinations, that you have provided the opportunity for everyone to present their position, really makes this an amazingly fair and balanced documentary. What are its plans for release and going forward?
Leslie: We have a lot of events coming up. We have an international distributor who is representing us globally, and outside the US, for distribution to broadcasters. We are also in discussions with television broadcasters in the United States. Starting on October 30, 2011, Mercola.com is going to be promoting the film, screening it online for free, and selling limited edition DVDs for one week only. We will be at the DOC NYC Film Festival in November 2 – 10, and at the NYC IFC theater for a screening for Oscar qualification from November 18 – 24. We just completed our Los Angeles premier for an Oscar nomination qualification. All of this is on our website at www.greatergoodmovie.org. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
We are making the film available for public screenings and house parties, so millions of people can watch the film in their communities, in their homes and discuss it with their families and friends. We need to join the conversation so we can all be on the same page about what we do and don’t know and decide how we can move forward to make vaccines as safe as they can possibly be. We need to discuss this issue sanely and rationally.
Lisa: Thank you for taking ten years of your life to bring this documentary to us. I look forward to participating in some of these discussions and screenings and the positive shift to wellness it can help to create.
For more information on vaccines and your right to informed choice, visit the National Vaccine Information Center, NVIC.
For national organizations supporting informed choice for vaccinations, visit our resource page.
For our extensive collection of books on vaccinations and informed choice, visit our bookstore.
Read Popping the Vaccine Bubble, about the financial structure and incentive to promote vaccinations as products for consumers by financial analyst, Michael Belkin
Read Conversations with a Medical Student by Neil Z. Miller