Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Good Model, Poor Role Model

I'm relieved to see a long-overdue website aimed at the most visible anti-vaccination scaremonger in America: Stop Jenny McCarthy.

That a bisexual nude model famous for her gross-out behaviour can reinvent herself as a role model for parents of autistic children and as a vaccine "expert" says much about our culture. It's not that I have anything against Ms. McCarthy on a personal level - I think she's gorgeous and fun, and I applaud her for taking such an active role in her son's upbringing at a time when many celeb parents are relying on round-the-clock nanny service. It's just that with all the real medical experts and autism researchers out there, it strikes me as a bad idea to give airtime to someone with no medical training, no postsecondary education, and no qualifications as a medical advisor. McCarthy has appeared on Larry King Live, Entertainment Tonight, and Oprah to air her views on the link between childhood vaccines and autism. Her story of "healing" her son through alternative therapies (a casein/wheat-free diet and probiotics) has also been on the cover of People and other supermarket magazines.
While McCarthy stresses that she is not anti-vaccine, she does publicly encourage parents to take advantage of religious exemptions for childhood vaccinations because vaccines contain mercury, antifreeze, and other ingredients that can cause autism. To date, every one of her statements about the hazards of vaccines have been demonstrably false.

The bottom line is that children who are not vaccinated often suffer and sometimes die from diseases which can be prevented by vaccines, while children who are vaccinated rarely suffer or die from these diseases. There is no link between autism and vaccines. Very few vaccines contain mercury, contrary to what Ms. McCarthy has said (some contain anti-freezing agents, to keep them from freezing). Anecdotal evidence from parents with no medical background is not a sufficient reason to avoid childhood vaccination.

McCarthy's prominence in the anti-vaccine movement has somehow lent it an air of legitimacy that it does not have. As more and more parents decide that vaccination is too risky, we will see rises in dangerous diseases like polio and measles. This has already happened in other parts of the world; when religious leaders in several African countires told parents it is against God's will for their children to be vaccinated, polio outbreaks resulted. This was one year after the disease was eradicated in Egypt.
My sister-in-law, a public health nurse, has told me that parents have been protesting in outrage when their unvaccinated children are denied entrance to local public schools. One mother couldn't comprehend why her son should be kept out of school "just because he didn't get a stupid polio shot." Perhaps if these parents could spend some time with people suffering the devastating effects of polio and post-polio, they wouldn't be complaining.

For more information on the public health dangers posed by the anti-vaccination movement, please see Dr. Steven Novella's article in the Nov. 2007 Skeptical Inquirer. This issue also contains a brief article by Dr. Richard G. Judelsohn explaining the benefits of vaccines.

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