This week when ABC announced that Jenny McCarthy would replace Elisabeth Hasselbeck on The View, the internet collectively voiced its outrage. McCarthy is (in)famous for her anti-vaccination stance and approach to autism treatment. Several GeekMoms, some of whom are parents of autistic children, and I were disgusted with ABC’s decision.
McCarthy’s anti-vaccination message is dangerous.
Since McCarthy’s son was diagnosed with autism in 2005 and then “cured” a few years later, she has worked tirelessly to spread the message that his vaccinations caused his autism. Despite the medical community’s repeated and vehement assertion that vaccinations and autism are not linked, McCarthy has continued to attach her message to disgraced scientist Andrew Wakefield, whose 1998 study caused the original uproar over vaccines.
Vaccinations do carry a small risk of injury, often as a result of other underlying conditions, and there’s no denying that it can be devastating. But they don’t cause autism. GeekMom Marziah wrote an excellent post in April and another last year detailing why not vaccinating your children has effects beyond one child’s immunity. Herd immunity is often cited as a reason why parents feel safe not vaccinating their own children. But this explanation from Wikipedia is right on point:
Unvaccinated individuals are indirectly protected by vaccinated individuals, as the latter will not contract and transmit the disease between infected and susceptible individuals. Hence, a public health policy of herd immunity may be used to reduce spread of an illness and provide a level of protection to a vulnerable, unvaccinated subgroup. Since only a small fraction of the population (or herd) can be left unvaccinated for this method to be effective, it is considered best left for those who cannot safely receive vaccines because of a medical condition such as an immune disorder, organ transplant recipients, or people with Egg Allergies.
As the number of families opting not to vaccinate increases, the herd immunity lowers for everyone—babies, unvaccinated kids, the elderly, anyone with a weaker immune system. Even delaying the recommended vaccination schedule can be dangerous, as has also been widely reported.
This graph from the CDC shows how states were meeting the herd immunity thresholds from 2006-2011:
In 2011, 49 out of 50 states did not have enough herd immunity against pertussis to meet the threshold because, who still thought of whooping cough as a problem?
The following year the worst whooping cough epidemic since 1955 clocked in at 42,000 cases.
I was pregnant in 2011, having my daughter in March 2012, and my OB/GYN actually encouraged me to get the pertussis vaccine while pregnant. The latest scientific evidence showed that mothers could pass on some protection from the vaccine in utero to protect babies until their own two month pertussis vaccine. I got the shot without hesitation. The research was so new I had to convince my general practitioner to administer it to me. The outbreak flared up that quickly.
The MMR vaccine was the first to be subjected to autism claims, and this makes the statistics in the bottom half of the graph troubling. Measles are no joke, and many states are falling under safe levels of immunization. That could mean a resurgence of measles similar to that of whooping cough. Read Mahi’s story for an idea of what can happen to a child who contracts measles before they have had the MMR vaccine. The risk of death or debilitating injury from disease far outweighs the completely debunked risk of developing autism.
Jenny McCarthy’s autism organization, Generation Rescue, has promoted severely questionable autism treatments.
Dr. David M. Perry wrote a scathing op-ed this week for CNN, highlighting some of the practices of McCarthy’s Generation Rescue organization. Several of the GeekMoms are divided on whether promoting dietary changes like a gluten-free, casein-free diet qualifies as “extreme.” Scientific studies on the benefits of specialized diets to treat autism are in their infancy, but “promising”—and some of us have seen first-hand how dietary changes can alter a child’s behavior in the case of food allergies, but it isn’t proven as yet.
It’s the other treatments that Generation Rescue promotes that have some of our hair collectively standing up on end.
This year’s AutismOne and Generation Rescue conference included panels on how to conceive a child without autism. There is scientific study into the development of autism in utero, but the description of this panel smacks of eugenics and slight religious fervor. It claims to unveil a way of preventing autism before conception. As if the tone didn’t already hint at the inferiority of autistic human beings, it goes on to suggest that parents should be doing more to prevent autism before they’ve even conceived a child. This is the definition of fear-based parenting.
Another panel at the conference focused on stem cell treatments for autism (scientific efficacy of which is still unknown). Stem cell treatments are not only costly and unproven, as Dr. Perry mentioned, but they are extremely invasive. The potential for trauma from the procedure itself in a non-communicative autistic child is very high. Volunteering a young child for the study, or the eventual treatment if passed, raises some serious ethical questions that need to be addressed.
And then there are the bleach enemas. Miracle Mineral Supplement (MMS), an enema made with diluted industrial strength bleach, was touted at last year’s AutismOne/Generation Rescue conference (where Jenny McCarthy gave the keynote and discussed chelation) as the latest “biomedical” autistic treatment. I’m not sure the word “biomedical” means what they think it means. The idea of preying on desperate, suggestible parents (who should still know better) by touting a flat-out abusive treatment for disabled children is abhorrent.
And Jenny McCarthy is running the show.
She has influence, but no expertise.
University of Michigan did a study a few years ago to find out what sources parents trusted for information on vaccinations. Of the 1500+ parents surveyed nationally, 24% answered that they placed “some trust” in the opinions of celebrities like Jenny McCarthy—who is by far the most outspoken anti-vaccine celebrity around.
The study also found that women are far more likely than men to be influenced by anecdotal evidence from friends and celebrities. That is truly staggering since celebrities have no formal training or real expertise in the field of vaccinations. But their opinions (and, by default, hers) influence a significant portion of the population’s decision making about vaccination.
Jenny McCarthy is compelling. She speaks to parents—particularly mothers—who are struggling, who want to be heard, and who are desperate for cures. She coined the phrase “mother warrior” and talked openly about her education from “the University of Google.” She is single-minded in her convictions about autism. But she is not an expert.
This interview was just two months before the Institute of Medicine’s conclusion that the current CDC vaccine schedule is absolutely safe for babies and children. It comes a couple of years after her assertion that the MMR vaccine specifically causes autism (Andrew Wakefield’s falsified study). On the back of the MMR scandal was the assertion that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative in vaccines, was actually the cause of autism from immunizations; this was also debunked. Then it was “too much, too soon.” Three debunked theories in a row, but McCarthy maintains her influence.
Her influence is strong enough that there’s an entire website dedicated to the death count brought on by the anti-immunization movement that she leads. The site only very recently changed its name from Jenny McCarthy Body Count, acknowledging the movement has become so much bigger than her.
All of this from a celebrity whose son may not have had autism in the first place. Karl Taro Greenfeld profiled the Playmate in 2010 and hypothesized that her son may actually have had Landau-Kleffner syndrome. Or he may have just been a normal child with developmental delays who finally caught up.
Jezebel followed that article with a piece titled “The Jenny McCarthy Conundrum: Is False Hope Better Than No Hope?” I think it hits the center of the issue:
The enduring popularity of McCarthy and her message may highlight a need for pediatricians and autism experts to better understand the emotional needs of families. Stopping vaccines clearly isn’t the answer, but clinicians need to regain parents’ trust — and to do so, they must recognize that doing something for a child, even if it’s not supported by science, may feel better than doing nothing.
Parents of autistic children, and other special needs children, need to feel like they are doing something to make it better. And a personable celebrity who tells them how will sometimes win out over science.
ABC is giving her carte blanche to talk about whatever she wants on The View.
Following the announcement of her hiring, a New York Times post suggested that ABC made it very clear that McCarthy’s views on autism and vaccination were welcome on the show:
Lauri Hogan, a spokeswoman for “The View,” said the show had made no request to Ms. McCarthy that she keep the vaccine issue off limits.
“All the hosts speak openly on a variety of topics and as has been stated repeatedly, Hot Topics are not scripted,” Ms. Hogan said in an e-mail message, referring to the part of the show in which the hosts discuss issues in the news.
This means Jenny McCarthy will have a platform five days a week to spread her message to The View’s largely female audience. That is a lot of mothers, and a lot of parents home with special needs children who will now get daily affirmation from a major network and from Barbara Walters, a powerhouse in female broadcasting, that McCarthy’s views are important.
It’s a reckless disregard for the damage that’s already been caused by her brand of autism advocacy.
Another post this week from Michael Specter at The New Yorker sums it up:
Executives at ABC should be ashamed of themselves for offering McCarthy a regular platform on which she can peddle denialism and fear to the parents of young children who may have legitimate questions about vaccine safety. Presumably, those executives have decided that the revenues Jenny McCarthy might generate are worth more than the truth. That’s their right. But it’s a strike against reason and progress and hope. That is a cost that the network won’t be able to afford for long, and neither will the rest of us.
I think if McCarthy can claim that greed is driving the pro-vaccination movement in this country, it is fair to point that same finger back at her and the network that hired her.
Greed and ratings should never be considerations when it comes to public health issues. Shame on ABC.