Recently, Jenny McCarthy was named as a host on The View. In September, she will join a distinguished line-up of women including Rosie O'Donnell, Meredith Vieira, Whoopi Goldberg and -- of course -- Barbara Walters. The show, which is piped into millions of households for 60 minutes every day courtesy of ABC, is the epitome of day-time talk shows. The hosts and their guests discuss a variety of topics ranging from sports to politics to entertainment. One of the topics that is often touched upon is health, be it new developments in care, new diets, new procedures, or just good, old-fashioned conversations with Dr. Oz. Unfortunately when it comes to health, Ms. McCarthy is a little out of step with not only her co-hosts but also the majority of the country. She continues to believe -- and is not afraid to advertise -- the thoroughly discredited premise that vaccines are linked with autism. Because of this purported connection she has been staunchly anti-vaccine.
Most children in the western world are vaccinated shortly after they are born. Without vaccines we would be plagued by a whole host of terrifying conditions (polio, mumps, measles, and smallpox all spring to mind) that have the potential to decimate populations. It is because of vaccines that these terrors have -- at least in this country -- been relegated to history books. Vaccines are incredibly effective. It has been estimated that vaccines prevent almost four million deaths and save over $63 billion in medical costs between 2011 and 2020.
In fact, vaccines are one of the few real home runs in the medical field. Unlike antibiotics which are gradually being defeated by ever evolving and strengthening super-bugs, or unlike surgical procedures that can carry a fairly high inherent risk, vaccines have the ability to inoculate one against illnesses that would have been a death sentence a century ago. While there is certainly some small amount of risk, mostly trivial (e.g, soreness), associated with a vaccine it is even more minimal when weighed against the potential benefits, like not developing smallpox.
In 1998 British surgeon Andrew Wakefield published a research paper in one of Britain's leading medical journals, The Lancet. In the paper Wakefield presented evidence that there might be a link between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and children developing autism and bowel disease. Unfortunately Wakefield's findings were eagerly received by the autism community, who now thought they had found an explanation for their children's' conditions. This fed into a broader anti-vaccination movement, which created a "public health crisis in England"
Wakefield's results have not been replicated. The Sunday Times revealed that Wakefield had undisclosed conflicts of interest (Wakefield was being paid by lawyers who were attempting to sue vaccine manufacturers) and the British General Medical Council convened a review board which found Wakefield's research to be devoid of scientific merit and worse, charged him with 12 counts of abusing developmentally challenged children. The Lancet retracted the piece and Wakefield has been barred from practicing medicine in the UK ever since.
McCarthy is one of Wakefield's adherents (she wrote the forward to his book). It is important to note that there is absolutely no published medical research that supports such a claim. In fact, there have been several papers published in recent years that specifically refute the alleged link. As far as the medical community is concerned, autism is at its core an issue of genetics, and not one of environmental factors.
Now, this is not to say that people aren't entitled to their own views -- they certainly are. In much the same way that one is allowed (at least in this country) to deny the Holocaust, one is allowed to believe Wakefield. However, people are not entitled to their own facts. Medicine is a field that is grounded in fact. Now, outside of math facts can be hard to explicitly identify, but it is safe to say that the burden of proof falls like an anvil on McCarthy. This problem is exacerbated when one is given a bully pulpit (in this case a nationally syndicated daytime talk show) from which to disseminate the 'facts'. Espousing pseudo-scientific rhetoric that is then fed to millions of potentially naive or ignorant viewers is morally irresponsible. According to Time magazine a recent survey found 24 percent of parents would, "place 'some trust' in information provided by celebrities such as McCarthy, about the safety of vaccines." Proselytizing of any shape or stripe should be viewed with a raised eyebrow and a challenging question. When this proselytizing is based on what one might charitably term pseudoscience (but truly resembles complete quackery) we should not simply be skeptical, we should be incredulous.
Time's survey points to another challenge. More and more patients are turning to various forms of media, and other patients, for medical information instead of exclusively relying upon doctors. Dr. Dan O'Connor in an article for The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics addresses the issue of apomediation within the field of human subjects research: "Now, almost any¬one with a broadband internet connection or a smart phone can share ideas, data, and opinions with just about anyone else on the planet.." He's right, and this applies to the medical field in general.
This brings up an interesting point. Are networks morally responsible for the views expressed on their programs? To a certain extent they must be -- they are the ones (along with the FCC) who are approving the content. Networks have an obligation to their viewers to express diverse and often conflicting viewpoints, and their right to do so is protected by the Bill of Rights. The question is where do we draw the line? Perhaps it needs to be drawn between fact and opinion. McCarthy is entitled to espouse whatever opinion she likes, but she isn't allowed to peddle fiction as fact to the American people.
It should be noted that McCarthy has not yet become a host of The View. It is entirely possible that when she assumes the position in September she will censure herself when it comes to her less than scientifically informed 'facts'. If this is the case then there is no reason she won't be a completely adequate replacement. However, to date, she has been anything but silent when it comes to promoting her beliefs, and if her past is any basis on which to divine her future actions we may be in for a rather rough ride.