Destabilizing the Jenny McCarthy Public-Health Industrial Complex

Giving the anti-vaccine advocate a platform is dangerous.

TOP: Dr. Jonas Salk holding two bottles containing a culture used to grow the polio vaccines in the 1950s. (AP) BOTTOM: Jenny McCarthy arrives at the Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, 2013 (John Shearer/AP)

Last week, the state Supreme Court of Wisconsin upheld the reckless homicide convictions of Dale and Leilani Neumann. Their daughter, Madeline, had diabetes, a 99.8 percent treatable condition. When she grew sick, her parents decided to pray for her instead of taking her to a doctor. The parents belonged to no specific denomination forbidding medical treatment, but had started to correspond with a controversial Florida apocalyptic ministry that advocates faith healing. As they prayed, the child died.

We fear anthrax more than flu, sharks more than pigs, flying more than driving, terrorism more than handguns, and autism more than measles.

The Neumann case provides a stark reminder that some beliefs can literally endanger children's lives. Religion and science equally fuel this kind of fear-mongering and reckless parenting. When combined with celebrity, real people get hurt.

This week, news leaked that The View, a popular daytime talk show featuring a panel of four women, is considering making Jenny McCarthy one of their hosts. This is a mistake, as it would provide a platform for a dangerous voice. Over the last decade, McCarthy has become one of the most prominent voices against vaccinations. She declared, as a fact, that vaccinations had caused her son's autism, and promoted this idea in venues aimed at mothers, such as on Oprah. 

McCarthy later insisted that she had cured their son through a combination of diet and vitamins. She accuses the government of being afraid to confront "the truth" about vaccines. In the last year or so, although she now admits her son never had autism, she is still selling fear by talking about the schedule of vaccines as dangerous. She has put the full force of her celebrity to the task of convincing parents to leave their children vulnerable.

McCarthy makes the most sense viewed not through her celebrity lens, but as a fairly typical parent of a child facing a diagnosis of special needs. My son also has special needs, in his case Down syndrome, and I can tell you that the moment of diagnosis is hard and the days and months that follow are even harder. As I oscillated between hope and fear and tried to come to an understanding of my new life, I too looked for something to blame. Those powerful words, "Down syndrome," instantly transformed my life and the life of my family. I mourned for the loss of my idea of a "normal" son. Is it any wonder that McCarthy, having encountered the future laden with the word "autism," believed the myth of the vaccine and the hope for a cure? Is it any wonder that so many other parents have seized on this fraudulent accusation and related false hopes? I empathize with McCarthy, but that doesn't erase the real harm she has done.

Anti-vaccinators risk not only the lives of their own children, but also those of others who are too medically fragile to get vaccinated and must instead rely on "herd immunity." Many medical conditions, especially those which compromise the immune system (which is fairly common in the world of Down syndrome), make vaccines medically inappropriate. Happily, in a population of vaccinated people, infectious but preventable diseases have trouble spreading even to the immunocompromised. But herd immunity breaks down when vaccinations are not administered to all who can medically receive them. At that point, people who chose to refuse vaccinations endanger those who had no choice. 

It's happening right now, as diseases long rendered unthreatening are roaring back into dangerous life. We've seen a rapid increase of outbreaks in preventable diseases, such as pertussis (whooping cough), measles, and mumps in the U.S. and the U.K. Whooping cough, for example, hit its highest rate of infection in 50 years over the last winter in the United States. A website dedicated to tracking the illnesses and deaths associated with the anti-vaccine movement cites over 100,000 illnesses and over 1000 deaths from these preventable diseases.

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David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois. He writes regularly at How Did We Get Into This Mess?

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