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Controversy Still Swirls Around Anti-Vaccine Documentary After Robert De Niro Pulls It from Tribeca Film Festival

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Steve Parsons/PA File/AP

Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Robert De Niro decided to pull a controversial documentary linking vaccines with autism from the upcoming festival’s lineup, but the storm surrounding the film, Vaxxed, continues to swirl.

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical School, told PEOPLE that including the film in the festival worried him and his colleagues.

“This is scientifically invalid and we were concerned that it was being dredged up – this fallacious concept, this myth – that vaccines are associated with autism, and because of Mr. De Niro’s personal standing and the admiration people have for him as well as the prestige of the festival, it would be a kind of validation,” Schaffner says.

He says he and his colleagues sent notes to the festival asking them to reconsider their inclusion of the film.

De Niro removed Vaxxed from the festival after initially agreeing to screen it, while also revealing that his son Elliot has autism.

“My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family,” De Niro said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.”

The film claims MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccines are linked to cases of autism, which was a theory presented by gastroenterologist and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield. The notion has since been widely discredited and retracted from the journal it was published in.

Still, an online petition with 25,000 signatures is circulating on Change.org to put the film back on the festival’s docket. Schaffner suggests that supporters of the movie are drawn by Wakefield’s charisma.

“[Dr. Wakefield] is very engaging, very good-looking and an excellent speaker so he attracts followers,” he says. “People buy into a concept – so the psychologists have told us – and then when they are presented information that’s quite contrary to the notion that they hold so dear, the normal human reaction is to double down and become even more stubbornly committed to the concept.”

He adds there is no conspiracy theory.

“Pediatricians and family doctors only want to do the best for the children they care for. There’s nothing conspiratorial about that. By bringing up this fallacious association with vaccines and autism, one of the sad things that it does is divert attention from further research and providing good attention to finding what the genuine causes of autism are and how better to treat autistic children.”