May 30, 2009
I’ve been fairly quiet about Jenny McCarthy’s campaign against childhood vaccinations, partly because Dr. David Gorski has covered the issue so thoroughly already, and partly because of my “do not engage” policy relating to the deeply irrational (i.e. there’s no winning an argument with “crazy.”) But this week I was filled with a renewed sense of urgency regarding the anti-vaccinationist movement for two reasons: 1) I received a personal email from a woman who is being treated with hostility by her peers for her pro-science views on vaccines and 2) a friend forwarded me a video of Jenny McCarthy speaking directly to moms, instructing them to avoid vaccinating their kids or giving them milk or wheat because of their supposed marijuana-like addictive properties.
Anti-Vaccination Views Are A Status Symbol?
I was surprised to discover that some pro-science moms are being mocked by peers who are uninterested in evidence, choosing to believe any dubious source of health information that questions the “medical establishment.” This concerned mom writes:
"I am the mother of two young children, and I live in the trenches of the anti-vax woo. In my circle of about 14 mothers, my anecdotal analysis is that the rate of complete vaccination hovers around 60%. The mothers in this group are all very well educated, middle-class or affluent, predominantly stay-home mothers. One problem is what they consider reliable sources of information. They rely on anecdotes and dismiss scientific evidence in part because they are very anti-medical establishment. The group is self-validating and many shared values (and myths) increase in intensity over time.
Many of the mothers practice “Natural Family Living” which has some appealing aspects, but also harbors elements of a cult. In this environment, anti-vaccination becomes a very powerful status symbol… I have lost friendships and been partially ousted from this circle because of my views."
This note struck a chord with me, since I experienced similar hostility in the past for voicing my concern about pseudoscience and misleading consumer health information. I was accused of being “paternalistic, narrow-minded, a dinosaur - part of a dying breed, a racist against complementary and alternative medicine, and a Bible school teacher, preaching evidence-based medicine,” insulted for my desire to be accurate about what was known and not known about treatment options, and my expertise, training, and academic credentials were called into question publicly on many occasions. I endured all of this primarily at the hands of someone who supposedly believed in “natural healing” and the “art of kindness” as an integral part of patient care.
I am troubled by the mounting antagonism towards those of us who’d like to use critical thinking and scientific reasoning to learn what we can about medicine and our health. I’m not sure what to do about it except to encourage one another to stand strong for science and reason – to expect all manner of attacks and insults, and to be firmly committed to the objective quest for truth. It shall set us free.
Jenny McCarthy – Inaccurate, Unhelpful And Dangerous Advice
Although I find Jenny McCarthy’s advice and opinions painful to watch, I committed myself to viewing her recent video at my friend’s request. In order to spare you similar discomfort, let me simply summarize what she said so you can get a high level overview of the sort of bizarre and misinformed claims she promotes (feel free to check out the video for yourself at http://www.generationrescue.org/media/Biomedical-101.html).
"Autism is not primarily a genetic disorder, but caused by vaccine-related toxins (including mercury, aluminum, ether, anti-freeze ,and human aborted fetal tissue) and pesticides."
* A recent study (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v459/n7246/full/nature07953.html) published in Nature links genetic alternations in DNA that codes for neuronal cell adhesion molecules to autism spectrum disorders.
* A mercury-autism link has been fully debunked (http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/thimerosal.htm).
* An aluminum-autism link has been disproven (http://www.webmd.com/parenting/news/20040129/aluminum-in-vaccines-poses-no-harm).
* There is no ether, anti-freeze or human tissue in vaccines (http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2007/11/cries_the_antivaccinationist_why_are_we.php).
* There is no conclusive evidence of a link between pesticides and autism.
“Kids get ‘stoned’ by wheat and dairy toxins. Giving them wheat or dairy proteins is like giving children marijuana.”
* There is currently no evidence (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/autism-treatment/AN01519) that any diet improves or worsens the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders. In fact, whole grains and dairy products are an important part of a healthy diet for most children.
“Food allergies are like Iran and Iraq. Glial cells (they’re like chef cell) provide food to the neuron kings. Glial cells can turn into Rambo to fight Iran and Iraq. If a child is allergic to everything, the Rambo cells stop feeding the neurons and the neurons starve. That causes the symptoms of autism.”
* I don’t know what to say about this strange analogy - clearly no science-based information here.
“To treat autism, you need to give your child supplements to fight off the yeast in their bodies. I recommend Super Nathera, Culturelle, Cod Liver Oil, Caprylic Acid, CoQ10, Calcium, Vitamin C, Selenium, Zinc, Vitamin B12, B6, and Magnesium.”
* There is no evidence of efficacy for any of these supplements in the treatment of autism.
“You need to consult with a DAN! Practitioner.”
* DAN! Practitioners recommend chelation therapy for the treatment of autism. There is no evidence (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/autism-treatment/AN01488) that chelation therapy has any benefit for children with autism, and in fact, can be fatal.
“Whatever you think becomes your reality. Imagine your child going to his/her prom and he’ll be cured.”
I think it’s pretty clear that Jenny McCarthy’s recommendations range from ineffective (imaginary healing) to harmful (malnutrition related to absent dairy and wheat in the diet, excessive levels of vitamins) to deadly (chelation therapy with DAN! Practitioners). Will mothers watching her new show on Oprah fall for her pseudoscience and poor advice?
I was pleased to see this open letter to Oprah (http://shirleywho.wordpress.com/2009/05/11/an-open-letter-to-oprah/) from one concerned mom. Here’s an excerpt:
"To me, it is clear that a significant number of people look up to you, and trust your advice and judgment. That is why it is such a huge mistake for you to endorse Jenny McCarthy with her own show on your network.
Surely you must realize that McCarthy is neither a medical professional nor a scientist. And yet she acts as a spokesperson for the anti-vaccination movement, a movement that directly impacts people’s health. Claims that vaccines are unsafe and cause autism have been refuted time after time, but their allure persists in part because of high-profile champions for ignorance like McCarthy. In fact, ten of the thirteen authors of the paper that sparked the modern anti-vaccination movement retracted the explosive conclusions they made due to insufficient evidence. Furthermore, it is now clear that the study’s main author, Andrew Wakefield, falsified data to support these shaky conclusions.
We have come close to eradicating life-threatening and crippling illnesses because of vaccines, but are now struggling to prevent outbreaks because of parents’ philosophical beliefs that vaccines are harmful. Realize this: when someone chooses not to vaccinate their child, they aren’t just putting their own child at risk, they are putting everyone else around them at risk. Diseases with vaccines should normally be of little concern even to unprotected individuals due to herd immunity – with the majority of the population immune, unprotected individuals are less likely to come into contact with the pathogen. Unfortunately, herd immunity disintegrates as fewer people are vaccinated, putting everyone who hasn’t yet been vaccinated at greater risk for infection. Now, the rates of infection by diseases for which we have safe and effective vaccines are climbing, thanks to anti-vaccination activists like Jenny McCarthy.
You reach millions of people everyday and your words and endorsements carry an incredible amount of weight. If you say to buy a certain book, people will buy it. If you do a segment on a certain charity, people will contribute. And if you say that what Jenny McCarthy is saying has merit, people will believe you…"
A certain segment of society appears to be emotionally invested in medical beliefs that are not based on science, but rather anecdotes, conspiracy theories, and magical thinking. Those who recommend a more objective method of inquiry may be subject to ridicule and hostility by that segment. Nonetheless, it is important (for public health and safety purposes and the advancement of science) for critical thinking to be promoted and defended. While some celebrities, like Jenny McCarthy, are committed to misinforming the public about their children’s health - parents who recognize the deception are speaking out against it. Perhaps the best way to combat Jenny’s propaganda is to boycott Oprah. Refusing to support the promotion of dangerous pseudoscience may be our best defense.