'I Never Told Anyone Not to Vaccinate'

In a veiled apology this week, Jenny McCarthy again illustrated that health science and culture are inextricable. Vaccination is among the few definitive tenets of disease prevention, but because of rampant misinformation, fear, and scientific illiteracy, rare infections have come back to life. What's to be done about that.
Initial shipment of polio vaccine in 1955 (AP)

In the way the word cancer quiets a room, polio once did. Now it sounds archaic. So does measles, which can make it difficult to comprehend that a woman from Seattle came down with measles two weeks ago after a Kings of Leon concert. That song "Sex on Fire" that you sometimes still hear on the radio? They were playing that while a woman was developing measles. Which will not impress you if you spent 2011 in France, where there were 15,000 cases of measles. Then, in the U.S. in 2012, almost 50,000 people got whooping cough.

Because parents are choosing to forgo or delay vaccinations, one in eight American kids has not received all that are medically recommended. In trying to understand the drivers of that idea, which is at odds with the science of infectious disease and public health policy, Jenny McCarthy has emerged the most visible detractor. The name of the host of The View now appears in medical journals. This week though, in an unexpected move, McCarthy said she is not against vaccinating children to protect them from infectious diseases. “I am not ‘anti-vaccine,’” she wrote in a column in Chicago Sun-Times Splash section on Sunday. That might seem like a dramatic change of heart, except that she says it’s not. I’ve never told anyone to not vaccinate.”

That’s a false sentence, but we don’t need to pick that apart. Well, okay, here's just one of her anti-vaccine statements from 2009: “It’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.”

Really, though; an argument with Jenny McCarthy over consistency has no winners. Vaccines are safe, and widespread vaccination programs are definitely good for public health. Writers at Slate, Time, and other places already exhaustively rebuked McCarthy for backpedaling and hypocrisy in this column. It's a lot of fun to catch someone contradicting herself, but the old statements are in the past. Jenny McCarthy really isn't the enemy; the misinformation she spread is. As long as she ends up on the side of the discussion that leads to the fewest outbreaks of mumps—the discussion which most doctors agree shouldn’t even be happening, and diseases that definitely shouldn’t—fine.

Adam Cole/NPR/Council on Foreign Relations

Except they are, and it is. And McCarthy didn’t stop writing there. She turned the argument into one of free speech and rights to raise children as one chooses. She said everyone should be free to dissent. McCarthy quoted a blogger and life-coach named Nancy Colasurdo, whose words, McCarthy said, “echo and articulate my concern with inflexible thinking”:

Here’s how it goes in this country, like everything else—black or white. Those are your choices. You either fall in line with 40-plus vaccines your doctor recommends on his or her schedule or you’re a wack-job “anti-vaxxer.” Heaven forbid you think the gray zone is an intelligent place to reside and you express doubt or fear or maybe want to spread the vaccines out a bit on this tiny person you’ve brought into the world.

We vaccinate kids against 16 diseases. Most vaccinations require three or four doses. The one-poke-per-visit approach is not beneficial and, worse, leaves kids unnecessarily vulnerable during the time between visits. Eminent pediatricians Paul Offit and Kristen Feemster at the University of Pennsylvania wrote last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Pediatrics, “Delaying vaccines offers no clear benefit and puts children at unnecessary risk. The most significant consequence is increasing the amount of time an infant or young child is susceptible to a vaccine-preventable disease, often during the time when a child is most at risk for severe infection.”

Among the untoward effects Offit and Feemster also note but deem less significant: “Delaying administration of measles-containing vaccines increases the risk of fever and seizures.”

Seven-year-old Mimi Meade winces as Dr. Richard Mulvaney inoculates her April 26, 1954, with the new Salk polio vaccine in one of the first injections of a countrywide test. (Harvey Georges/AP)

McCarthy also wrote, similarly, “I believe parents have the right to choose one poke per visit.”

It’s odd to turn it into an issue of rights in that way. At best that’s like giving a first-amendment defense for referring to Ukraine as “the Ukraine.” Except worse, because you are messing with another person’s life. Parents have a right to let their kids sit on the couch watching Ridiculousness and eating yogurt from tubes all day. In a lot of ways, parents have a right to be bad parents. Last year a German boy named Micah died because of a measles infection. Too young to be vaccinated himself, he contracted measles from a willfully unvaccinated child in their pediatrician’s waiting room. One family’s free choice not to vaccinate resulted in the death of another’s boy.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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