When discussing technology, we are often referring to advancements in information access. It is now, more than any other time in human history, easier to access large swaths of information on topics that nearly range the entire imagination. With access to the internet we are literally seconds away from the answers to billions and billions of questions. Information has become so easily accessible that one can, without formal education, become somewhat proficient in any topic they so choose. This personal education is often referred to, in jest, as a degree from Google University. While this kind of education is ultimately a wonderful thing, it is vitally important that we do not make the mistake of confusing it with expertise.
In our culture, celebrities possess by definition, an elevated status. Many of them use this elevated status to speak out, to help their opinions be heard. This is often a fine thing, for celebrities in this country tend to present a kind heart and represent reputable charities that are worth contributing to. It does not escape this observer that they often do this as much to promote charity, as to increase their celebrity status, but a good deed is a good deed, is it not? However, there are certain topics that when celebrities speak on, we as citizens should, if not legally, then at least culturally, hold them more liable for their words.
Jenny McCarthy is one such celebrity, who, armed with a degree from Google University and her “mommy instinct”, is promoting a cause that’s on the wrong side of science, truth, and humanity. Through her organization Generation Rescue (GR), she promotes the idea that autism is caused by vaccines. While GR’s website states that their mission “is to support continued research on causative factors and treatment approaches for [neurological disorders]” they are most publicly active at promoting the idea of a link between vaccines and autism. A link that does not exist.
A little background on vaccines is necessary here. In the late 1920’s vaccine production companies began using a mercury based preservative called thimerosal. In 1996, as a precautionary measure, the preservative was ordered to be removed from all vaccine’s, and by 2001 no vaccine’s in the US contained thimerosal. This was purely precautionary, since around the same time several studies were being concluded, and the reports were unanimously showing that thimerosal was not neurotoxic in the doses available in vaccines, as was the concern (Baker).
However, in 1998, research by Dr. Andrew Wakefield was published in The Lancet, a medical journal, supposedly linking the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. The doctor claimed “that the families of eight out of 12 children attending a routine clinic at the hospital had blamed MMR for their autism, and said that problems came on within days of the jab” (Deer, Wakefield). This article sparked a disaster in vaccination rates, with inoculations falling from “92% to 80%” and thus removing our “herd immunity”, the condition where a highly vaccinated population can effectively defeat the spread of diseases, even to those who have not been inoculated. Without this herd immunity, rates of measles have risen dramatically, even resulting in the death of two children. Furthermore, in February 2009 it was discovered by journalist Brian Deer that Dr. Wakefield had ‘cooked’ or ‘fixed’ the data he presented to The Lancet as justification for his conclusions:
“In most of the 12 cases, the children’s ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records. Although the research paper claimed that problems came on within days of the jab, in only one case did medical records suggest this was true, and in many of the cases medical concerns had been raised before the children were vaccinated” (Deer, Wakefield).
Alongside the incorrect data, Wakefield had several patent applications in process for new MMR vaccines, providing a clear conflict of interest in the research presented (Deer, Revealed). Also, all attempts to duplicate Dr. Wakefield’s findings in further studies have failed(Hornig)(Tozzi). There is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
The evidence against a link is so overwhelming that when it was brought to the federal court, in his conclusion briefing, Special Master Hastings had this to say about the evidence for a link:
“The petitioners in this case have advanced a causation theory that has several parts, including contentions that thimerosal-containing vaccines can cause immune dysfunction, that the MMR vaccine can cause autism, and that the MMR vaccine can cause chronic gastrointestinal dysfunction. However, as to each of those issues, I concluded that the evidence was overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners’ contentions. The expert witnesses presented by the respondent were far better qualified, far more experienced, and far more persuasive than the petitioners’ experts, concerning most of the key points. The numerous medical studies concerning these issues, performed by medical scientists worldwide, have come down strongly against the petitioners’ contentions. Considering all of the evidence, I found that the petitioners have failed to demonstrate that thimerosal-containing vaccines can contribute to causing immune dysfunction, or that the MMR vaccine can contribute to causing either autism or gastrointestinal dysfunction. I further conclude that while Michelle Cedillo has tragically suffered from autism and other severe conditions, the petitioners have also failed to demonstrate that her vaccinations played any role at all in causing those problems” (Hastings).
Again, there is no link between vaccines and autism, the scientific evidence clearly refutes any such claim. Any perceived links between the vaccine schedule, thimerosal, and MMR, are all entirely coincidental.
One might wonder how Jenny McCarthy fits into this whole thing, and it would not be fair to leave out her motivations. When he was two years old, her son Evan was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is only natural that one in her position would want to know why this has happened to her son, and no one would fault her there. That desire, combined with the fact that there is currently no definitive answer to the question of cause for autism, makes it easy to see why some have clung so strongly to the failed vaccine hypothesis. If the story could end here, it would simply be another sad tale in the fight against ASD, but this is not a harmless belief.
The inaccurate belief that vaccines can cause autism is a dangerous belief to hold. Its perpetuation leaves children unnecessarily unprotected from many preventable diseases, it endangers other children and adults who may not be able to get the vaccines because of complications, like allergies, and without herd immunity these entirely preventable diseases can spread throughout the world reaching pandemic proportions. With Jenny McCarthy exploiting her celebrity, and now that of her husband Jim Carrey, to promote a belief of this sort, the danger is immense.
As a society, we should not look to our celebrities for much more than entertainment. Certainly we should not use them as a source of medical information. These are matters of life and death, and in these situations of utmost importance, should expertise not be a requirement to make such statements? Can we hold Jenny McCarthy responsible for the deaths of unvaccinated children whose parents trusted in her for sound advice? Can we blame the parents? How have we have lost sight of the value in elitism, the value in expertise, and the value in science?
Baker, Jeffrey. “Mercury, Vaccines, and Autism: One Controversy, Three Histories.”
American Journal of Public Health 98.202 Jan 2008 244-253. Web.13 May 2009.
Deer, Brian. “MMR doctor Andrew Wakefield fixed data on autism.”
The Sunday Times of London 8 Feb 2009 Web.12 May 2009.
Deer, Brian. “Revealed: the first Wakefield MMR patent claim describes “safer measles vaccine”.”
Web.12 May 2009.
Hornig M, Briese T, Buie T, Bauman ML, ‘and’ Lauwers G. “Lack of Association between Measles Virus Vaccine
and Autism with Enteropathy: A Case-Control Study.” PLoS ONE (2008) Web.13 May 2009.
Tozzi A, Bisiacchi P, Tarantino V, De Mei B, D’Elia L, Chiarotti F, ‘and’ Salmaso S.
“Neuropsychological Performance 10 Years After Immunization in Infancy With Thimerosal-Containing Vaccines.”
Pediatrics 123.226 Jan 2009 475-482. Web.13 May 2009.
Hastings, Special Master. “Case Decision.” U.S. Courts: Federal Judiciary. 12 Feb 2009.
U.S. Courts. 13 May 2009