Please stop hating on vaccines, Jenny McCarthy

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I think we have enough to deal with in the vaccine controversy without giving Jenny McCarthy an even bigger microphone for her voice. Now she has been invited to be the newest host on ABC’s talk show “The View” with Barbara Walters, where she vows to make “hot topics even hotter”.

For someone who was once quoted saying, “Think of autism like a fart, and vaccines are the finger you pull to make it happen,” Jenny McCarthy is not the best public health advocate. She claims that her son got autism from a vaccine he received at birth, something that has been proven wrong time and again by the scientific community. McCarthy, the leader of the organization Generation Rescue, now claims that her son has been healed from years of gluten-free and dairy free dieting and detox (because the cure for autism is really that simple. And all the researchers working around the world on this topic must not be as smart as Jenny McCarthy…) I just worry for the viewers who are uninformed, the people watching this show catering to moms who actually get their medical knowledge from TV talk shows. A 2008 USATODAY/Gallup poll showed that 1 in 4 adults were familiar with McCarthy’s views on vaccines and that 40% of them questioned vaccines after hearing from McCarthy.

The vaccine saga started in 1998 when British scientist Andrew Wakefield published his study in the Lancet, linking the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. It was quickly debunked and the article was retracted for “research fraud, unethical treatment of children, and Wakefield’s conflict of interest through his involvement with a lawsuit against manufacturers of the MMR vaccine.” (BMJ) Wakefield was given plenty of opportunity to repeat his findings and experiments, but guess what? He couldn’t. In fact, his medical license has even been revoked for his deceitful research. And dozens of studies have come out since showing there is no link between vaccines and autism. But the damage has been done, and celebrities like Jenny McCarthy have spun the issue into a media frenzy.

As a future physician training at an institution where evidence-based medicine is key, I feel infuriated that all of our efforts can be so easily undermined by ill-informed celebrities. The media has such profound influence on health, for better or for worse. To all the couples out there with kids or expecting kids, please talk to your doctor. Not vaccinating is a selfish thing to do, and sets us back decades in public health advances. Trust me, you don’t need your medical advice from former Playboy models.

2 Comments on Please stop hating on vaccines, Jenny McCarthy

  1. Immunologist
    July 16, 2013 at 8:05 pm (4 years ago)

    While I agree not vaccinating a child is ridiculous and there’s clearly no link between vaccination and autism, I can understand why this idea would be attractive for people with autistic children to believe.

    Science has demonstrated that autism has a strong genetic basis, but as of yet, the specific combination of loci/alleles that increase susceptibility is still elusive. This leaves parents with autistic children with a problem when they ask the scientific community why their child has an autism spectrum disorder. There are a number of specific reasons why their child might be autistic, but all we can say is that they likely inherited it. This scares many people, because under this model, some people might conclude that they are at fault for their child’s state. Unlike many genetic disorders, autism presents a challenge to families because the biomedical community can’t point to a specific gene set that gave their child autism. There is no BRCA1, trisomy, or Pyrin, gene that can allow parents to externalize the blame (allowing them to argue “I didn’t give my child autism, these genes (that do not necessarily define me) did”).

    So when people come along and say distraught parents can assign blame to something else (whether it be vaccines, mercury, viruses, etc.), there definitely is a community waiting for them eager to listen.

    I don’t know whose job this would be, but it seems somebody needs to communicate to the public how to conceptualize complex genetic diseases, because it seems most people still view complex diseases the same way they view sicke cell anemia, which is simply inaccurate. Because at the end of the day, anti-vaccinationists will always be around (they’ve been around since the days of Jenner, and that’s during a time when tons of people were dying of smallpox), but if we can limit the audience that anti-vaccinationists can appeal to, we should be able to still achieve herd immunity (and maybe elliminate a couple diseases).

    Reply
    • teawithmd
      July 16, 2013 at 11:02 pm (4 years ago)

      Thank you for your insightful comment – I couldn’t agree more. When I was writing my post yesterday I thought about why parents still believe in this debunked theory of vaccines causing autism, and you hit the nail on the head. Plain and simple, parents turn to anything because science doesn’t offer them anything better. There are several clinical trials that are ongoing to look at mercury chelation, donepizil, etc, but progress is hard to measure and scientists have been hard pressed to find any real positive effect on the behavioral anomalies seen in autism. The most recent canceled clinical trial that has been publicized was examining arbaclofen for autism and fragile X. Parents of children enrolled in the trial felt betrayed and hurt because they actually saw some improvement while their kids were on the drugs. With so much disappointment, I can see why parents of autistic children turn to whatever they can find. Jenny McCarthy and others tout chelation therapies and gluten-free and dairy-free diets as treatments. Fine, as long as these treatments aren’t hurting their children, I’m okay with it. But it becomes a problem when parents who don’t vaccinate their children are actually harming other children who are vaccinated. As the fight in public health over vaccines continues, we will continue to see pockets of vaccine-preventable outbreaks (in fact, here is a really cool map sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation showing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable polio, MMR, whooping cough, etc. around the world. You can really see those pockets of disease in this format!). Until science offers a better solution, I just hope that other celebrities will take up this cause and speak out against these debunked theories for the general audience who gets medical knowledge from mainstream TV.

      Reply

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