Destabilizing the Jenny McCarthy Public-Health Industrial Complex

McCarthy joined this dangerous movement after her son turned two and began to experience seizures and speech delays. He was diagnosed with autism, and she seized on research out of England that linked vaccinations to autism. That research was fraudulent. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, who had a financial stake in an alternative MMR (Measles-Mumps-Rubella) vaccine, published a study in The Lancet that argued for a causal link between the traditional MMR vaccine and autism. His study was a corrupt version of a "case-control" trial, a notoriously unreliable format, based on just 12 children with autism. Such a tiny trial, even if perfectly conducted (and it was not), could tell very little about the wider population. Multiple larger trials refuted Wakefield's conclusion; moreover, Wakefield was found to have manipulated the evidence. Wakefield was stripped of his license to practice medicine and The Lancet took the extraordinary step of retracting the article. For Wakefield and his backers, like McCarthy, it's all a sign of a conspiracy.

Meanwhile, children are literally getting sick and dying. By 2009, just when McCarthy's anti-vaccine message was reaching a peak, one study in Oregon found parents four-times as likely to skip vaccines as they had been four years before. Despite a CDC study of over 1000 children showing no links between autism and vaccines (remember, Wakefield had only 12), parents keep asking about the risks of autism. And the specific MMR-related fears about autism has bled into more generalized fears about vaccination, as witnessed in the debate over the HPV vaccine. All the evidence points to the HPV vaccine as one of the greatest and safest developments in recent medical history, but parents are afraid to take a step which would protect their children against life-threatening cancers.

Beyond these generalized health issues, and here I am writing from the perspective of a parent deeply involved in the disability community, the notion that it is worth the risk of serious or even fatal illness to avoid autism hurts people who are living with the condition. McCarthy portrays autism as a terrifying disease you can nevertheless fix with fad diets. Claims of cures like McCarthy's have led parents to feed their children bleach, buy expensive (though harmless) specialized diets, and spend tens of thousands of dollars on experimental treatments.

People with autism need support in their quest for self-advocacy and integration, not fads. Parents need communities and schools and scientifically-guided medical care that they can rely on, not to be bilked by fraudsters and fearmongers. People with autism are not victims, and they do not need McCarthy's organization to "rescue" them. What they need is the same thing all persons with disability need: a pathway to inclusion.

I don't watch The View, but I do watch the world of disability, and I know the price that we pay when dangerous conspiracy theories spread. People in general, and parents in particular, are bad at assessing risks. We fear anthrax more than flu, sharks more than pigs, flying more than driving, terrorism more than handguns, and autism more than measles. We also believe in celebrity, something that McCarthy acknowledges when she says, "It is amazing what celebrity can do if you do it with 100 percent good intention and heart." I believe her intentions are good. As parents, we want the best for our children, and for all children with special needs. But in her case, the results have been terrible.

Presented by

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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