Is Jenny McCarthy a threat to public health?

Guest post by Mark A. Largent

Last week the daytime talk show The View announced that it had hired Jenny McCarthy as a co-host for the show. The show has never shied away from hiring strong-willed, opinionated women. But, unlike any of the previous hires, McCarthy has drawn fire from the public health and medical communities because of her outspoken position on compulsory vaccines. Her views are vehemently rejected by public health officials, science enthusiasts, and health care providers even as they are encouraged by some who occupy an even more extreme position against vaccines. Yet, McCarthy represents a large segment of parents who are not actually eager to move to either extreme, and it is a mistake to cast and recast her message as more extreme than it really is.

vaccine

McCarthy’s ascent up the Hollywood ladder has caused great consternation among her critics. As Phil Plait, a long-time critic of McCarthy, wrote on Slate, “So McCarthy will now get a seat on a TV show, where her charm and good humor will no doubt serve her and her cause well. And in the meantime, her frankly dangerous ideas about health issues will get that much more mainstream attention.” Others have been even more pointed in their criticism. James Poniewozik of Time wrote that the decision “to legitimize McCarthy’s dangerous anti-science” is “irresponsible and shameful.” Michael Specter wrote in the New Yorker that McCarthy’s “dangerous views on childhood vaccination may—if only indirectly—have contributed to the sickness and death of people throughout the Western world.”

I wrote a lot about McCarthy in Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America. She is undoubtedly one of the most visible figures in the modern vaccine debate, and she had drawn a great deal of attention from both vaccine advocates and their detractors. She is an easy figure to demonize, and in the book I describe how McCarthy wrote two books on motherhood that vaulted her “potty humor into the mainstream in a way that a half-dozen B movies and hundreds of celebrity appearances never could.” In 2006, she published Life Laughs: The Naked Truth about Motherhood, Marriage, and Moving On, which detailed the difficult year when she divorced her husband and learned that her son, Evan, was diagnosed with autism.

In her 2008 book, Louder Than Words, McCarthy described the day Evan’s symptoms of autism first appeared. She had found her two-year-old in his crib, limp and struggling to breathe through a seizure. Earlier that day he had received several vaccines, and his seizures may have been induced by a fever, which sometimes follows vaccinations. An ambulance took Evan to the hospital, where he was given a series of tests and released a day later unable to walk, barely speaking, and acting oddly. Shortly thereafter he was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. McCarthy’s story is laced with small details that foreshadow her eventual disgust with medical professionals who were unable to find solutions to, or even adequate explanations for, Evan’s seizures or the radical changes to his physical and cognitive abilities. Like many other Americans, McCarthy turned to the Internet to learn more about her son’s condition and find treatments. Eventually her self-guided research led her to the kind of information that I describe in my book: “accusations about vaccine-induced ailments, concerns about the contents of vaccines, and assertions that—somehow—vaccines cause the symptoms of autism.” McCarthy came to believe that Evan’s seizures and accompanying changes in his behavior and cognitive abilities were the result of insults that his body had endured, which included a series of ear infections and their treatment with several courses of antibiotics, a severe case of eczema, and his routine childhood vaccines. Evan’s body, she believes, could not handle the combined effects of these illnesses and treatments, and his immune system went “haywire.” McCarthy believes that her son’s digestive system stopped being able to process certain foods, and this change led to a toxification of his system, which caused his symptoms. In an interview with a parenting magazine, McCarthy explained, “Looking back, I’d say, ‘God, if a kid is having more than seven ear infections in a year and he’s got eczema, there are some issues here—his immune system is obviously under attack, and we need to put him in the sensitive category. Let’s just delay some of his shots.’ ”

McCarthy gives voice to a large – and apparently growing – segment of American parents who are increasingly uncomfortable about the modern vaccine schedule. Published polls typically report that about 40% of American parents have refused or delayed a recommended vaccine for their children. Vaccine advocates routinely portray McCarthy as “anti-vaccine,” but we should take her case as an opportunity to think about how we define someone as “anti-vaccine.” An anti-vaccinator is someone who believes that vaccines are not effective at preventing diseases or that vaccines somehow pollute the body and are thus inherently bad and will refuse any and all vaccines. The percentage of anti-vaccinators in the U.S. has held steady throughout the least 100 years at about 3% of the population and is dominated by a few religious sects (like Christian scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses), a couple of ethnic or cultural groups (like the Amish), and some alternative health care providers who eschew many aspects of modern medicine (including a large number of naturopaths and chiropractors).

By this traditional definition, McCarthy is not an anti-vaccinator. She apparently does not believe the vaccines are inherently bad or ineffective at preventing diseases. Instead, McCarthy believes that the one-size-fits-most approach taken by the modern vaccine schedule is problematic because it does not adequately protect the handful of apparently otherwise healthy children who might be susceptible to damage from vaccines. In an interview with the PBS show Frontline, McCarthy said, “We’re not an anti-vaccine movement. We’re pro-safe-vaccine schedule. Until we have that conversation, people are going to think it’s an anti- and pro- side.” She has called for an aggressive campaign to investigate all of the contents of all childhood vaccines to insure that they are free of potentially harmful preservatives and adjuvants (this, by the way, has already been done), and she would like to see physicians routinely screen children to determine if they might be somehow susceptible to adverse reactions from vaccines. She is also anxious about the large number of vaccines routinely administered to children at a young age. Under the current vaccine schedule, children typically receive about three dozen vaccinations before they start kindergarten, and most of these vaccinations occur within the first 18 months of a child’s life. McCarthy’s position is that, for some children, vaccinations ought to be delayed until age 2, rather than begin at birth.

McCarthy’s argument about vaccines is much more attractive to most American parents than have been the arguments offered by traditional anti-vaccinators, and thus she is much more dangerous in the minds of vaccine advocates. She has a powerful, if at times problematic, personal story about her child’s adverse reaction to vaccines, and she tells it with brutal honestly. She bluntly expresses the frustrations that many of us have felt with the modern medicine’s inefficiencies and strained bureaucracy. Moreover, she very effectively taps into the fears that many parents feel about vaccines. For parents of healthy children, the fear that a vaccine will induce serious, permanent damage is both real and very effective at altering their health care decisions. As I explain in Vaccine, “Guilt by omission—failing to administer a vaccine and as a result a child contracts a communicable disease—seems preferable to guilt by commission—making a child sick as a result of an adverse reaction to a vaccine.”

So, in light of McCarthy’s new, high-profile gig, what should vaccine advocates be doing about her? If vaccine advocates are interested in seeing as many children as possible vaccinated, what should they do about McCarthy?

First, stop calling her an anti-vaccinator. Her views are broadly appreciated by parents, especially mothers (who research tells us make about 85% of the health care decisions for their families). By labeling McCarthy an anti-vaccinator, public health officials and their proponents are effectively telling anyone who shares McCarthy’s concerns that they, too, are anti-vaccinators. Doing so drives millions of moderate parents into the warm embrace of alternative care providers, many of whom are truly anti-vaccine. McCarthy and parents like her are vaccine anxious. Vaccine-anxious parents recognize the potential value of vaccines in preventing disease—even if they sometimes discount their efficacy—but they weigh vaccines’ benefits against a host of unknown potential adverse side effects. The best way to address vaccine anxious parents is not to marginalize them as anti-vaccinators, but to address their root concerns about vaccine safety, efficacy, and continued importance in light of the decreasing incidence of most vaccine-preventable diseases.

Second, stop trying to recast and condemn McCarthy’s message. Doing so, even in the most aggressive and dismissive way, validates her as an authority of sorts and it provides her a great deal of free advertising. Millions of vaccine-anxious parents in the U.S. see public health officials and science enthusiasts focusing intense attention on the attractive and charismatic McCarthy, who has a story that can solicit empathy from even the most callous reader. Attacking her is ineffective at maintaining the trust of the 40% of American parents who admit to being anxious about the modern vaccine schedule.

Finally, directly address McCarthy’s concerns (and the concerns many parents share with her). Instead of demonizing and marginalizing McCarthy, use that same space to explain why we are confident that childhood vaccines are safe and free from harmful preservatives and adjuvants. Explain how and why public health officials are confident that modern vaccine schedule is appropriate for most children.

Public health officials have a strong urge to view McCarthy as the cause of much of the anxiety that many parents feel about vaccines today. She is merely a symptom—a very visible one—of deeper and much more vexing problem. As I explain in Vaccine, the process of vaccinating children today raises a large number of “serious problems—some inherent to the vaccines themselves and some unintentionally generated over the last several decades—that animate parents’ anxieties about vaccines. The entire process is conducted under substantial time and financial pressures, and so many shots are given at such a young age against so many obscure diseases without parents’ having a clear understanding of why we are vaccinating against certain diseases and not others. No reasonable person ought to be surprised that the process has created apprehension among thoughtful parents.”  Directly addressing these problems in a calm and reasoned fashion is the best way to ensure that McCarthy’s new job will not undermine health officials’ efforts to protect as many children as possible against as many vaccine-preventable diseases as possible.

vaccineMark A. Largent is a historian of science, technology, and medicine and the author of Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America. He is an associate professor of history and the director of the Science, Technology, Environment, and Public Policy Specialization at Michigan State University.

10 Comments

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10 responses to “Is Jenny McCarthy a threat to public health?

  1. Pingback: Is Jenny McCarthy a threat to public health? | jhublogs

  2. JIm Mica

    Cause, concomitant, epiphenomena, symptom, does it matter? Clearly demonizing her is detrimental to rational discussion, but will she in any way aid rational discussion?
    I don’t think you answer your own question.

  3. JLK

    Thank you! I’ve been saying this same thing about Jenny McCarthy for years now. I have never understood why people want to paint her as this evil villain. She’s not evil. She has had some scary parental experiences that have colored her opinions. Screaming about how she’s the devil and irrationally arguing that she is solely responsible for the slight drop in vaccination rates that we’ve seen recently completely ignores the truth of the matter, which is, as you say, that for many parents it is incredibly upsetting to see their babies getting poked with needles at every doctor’s appointment and then acting sick for days afterward. It creates a nagging feeling of, “Is this really for the best? Would it really be so bad to delay…just for a bit?” Lord knows that even though I had my daughters immunized on schedule, I had those thoughts…often.

  4. vexorian

    But Jenny is an Anti-vax voice. She disguises her anti-vax arguments under milder arguments against vaccination schedules. That is her trick to appeal to those parents and apparently is succesful also with notable historeans. In reality though she has always been against vaccines. While she makes such statements that make her seem as a reasonable opponent to scheduled vaccination or (as in the past) an activist wanting safer ingredients in vaccines. The reality is that she promotes full-power anti-vax movements and websites.

    Must read: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/jenny-mccarthy-jim-carrey-and-green-our-vaccines-anti-vaccine-not-pro-safe-vaccine/

  5. Mark Largent

    Vexorian’s response to McCarthy nicely demonstrates one very strongly held viewpoint on this issue, which I call the all-or-nothing approach to vaccines. It is position that demands complete adherence lest you be labelled as anti-science and anti-vaccine. It is closely akin to President G. W. Bush’s assertion, “You are either with us or against us.”

    The problem with the all-or-nothing approach is that does not allow any room for moderation. Regardless of what any of us might think about critical importance of vaccines to both individuals’ and the public’s health, parents do not have to vaccinate their children. Both the legislatures and the courts have made clear that vaccination is a choice (albeit one that is sometimes accompanied by a loss of access to certain public services). Therefore, we must recognize that the vaccine debate is not a scientific debate, it’s a political debate, and we need to begin to treat it as one. Without a moderate position, anyone with questions or concerns about vaccines will be pushed into the arms of the anti-vaccinators. It is unfortunate that the state of this discussion is so badly polarized that no moderate positions are tolerated. The result is that McCarthy is one of the few people in this discussion that show much of any resemblance to moderation, even if her views are often flawed both empirically and logically.

    Nonetheless, it is important to be accurate about the positions held in this debate, especially when characterizing one’s opponents. McCarthy has not “always been against vaccines.” Before that day when her son had a series of febrile seizures (which may or may not have been related to the vaccines he had received earlier that day), McCarthy was – like many American parents – willing to accept whatever her pediatrician told her was standard medical practice. The emergence of his developmental and medical problems and her frustration with her health care providers’ response to them activated her and made her critical of many aspects of modern medicine. Nonetheless, I will agree that since she became an activist on the issue, she has been critical of the modern vaccine schedule and skeptical about both the efficacy and safety of vaccines. But her views are fundamentally different than those of traditional anti-vaccinators, who believe that vaccines are inherently bad medically and/or morally. Conflating views like hers with traditional anti-vaccinators is a ham-handed response to a political problem that demands subtlety.

    • Paul Egtvedt

      Excellent post, Mark. While I agree the debate has become political, the public health issue of the safety and efficacy of vaccination is and must be primarily and fundamentally scientific/medical. You cannot have a proper public health debate based on personal anecdotes (however moving) or religious beliefs (however pervasive). To say that a moderate position is necessary because, otherwise, doubters will be pushed into the anti-vaccination camp, is either a condescending concession to ignorance or a claim to the existence of a scientifically/medically sound “moderate” position. Maybe there is one. Fine – make that argument scientifically/medically. And I agree there always should be room for and voice to healthy skepticism of conventional scientific/medical wisdom. But a moderate position should not exist simply as an artificial middle-ground to appease people unwilling to engage the scientific/medical positions honestly.

  6. darwinsbulldog

    Another must read: http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2012/09/13/respecting-parental-concerns-versus-pandering-to-antivaccine-fears/

    And no, McCarthy will not aid rational discussion, she’ll just say “It’s bullshit!” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSSS2BIthcg

  7. Pingback: What If Vaccines Caused Autism? | Genotopia

  8. THINKCLEARLY

    While Jenny McCarthy’s son did have seizures, he does not have autism. Big difference. His diagnosis is Landau Kleffner Sydrome which when treated with anti seizure meds, improves. It has nothing to do with vaccines, vitamins, or gluten free diets. What I find most interesting about McCarthy’s case is that within a few years of her son’s alleged “autism” diagnosis, she had already written several books, did magazine interviews and TV talk shows stints, talking about her son’s alleged “autism.” She relied on the media’s ignorance and ambiguity of autism to propel her books and agenda. How sad. Nobody with a truly autistic child suddenly stops trying to help their autistic child. She went on to other things right away, as if her son’ autism was a thing of the past. It doesn’t work that way people. If your child has REAL autism, things just don’t magically get better and you don’t just suddenly stop talking about it and jump into promoting your “career”. Her son has Landau Kleffner Syndrome,which doesn’t carry the same media frenzy attention as the autism diagnosis. She is a very manipulative person who knew exactly what to do to get her situation into the media and then dumped the entire autism diagnosis by claiming her son was now “cured” and well, it’s time for her to move on. Such a SHAM>

  9. Laura Griffith

    I’m guessing she didn’t breast feed her son since she she seems so concerned about his immune system. Myself, my sister and brother have 9 children between us. Ranging from 14 years old to 5 years old and all of them were regularly vaccinated and not one of them has Autism!!! And the majority of them were breastfed!