When the nation turned our eyes to watch the ball drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve, we saw actress and former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy urging viewers to kiss her on our TV screens. Thousands of people did, and sent her pictures to prove it. That's the nature of being a celebrity, possessing the ability to influence other people's behavior, and therein lies its potential for abuse.
The idea that vaccines cause autism has been found to be totally false by doctors and scientists, in the same way almost all sane observers agree global warming is manmade. But thanks to anti-vaccine misinformation spread by some celebrities like McCarthy, Miyam Bialik, and Donald Trump, doctors say preventable diseases like measles are making a comeback across America, and children are dying from them. From mid-2007 through the end of 2014, there were 6,274 U.S. deaths that could have been prevented by vaccines, as documented by CDC reports.
Measles cases in the U.S. reached a 20-year high last May. The CDC estimates that in 2013, 92 percent of measles cases occurred in people who weren't vaccinated.
Before the anti-vaccine propaganda campaign heated up, measles were prematurely declared eradicated in this country in 2000. This represented a huge public health victory, since in the 1950s, prior to widespread vaccinations, there were hundreds of thousands of cases annually -- in some years almost a million.
As MedicalDaily.com editor Elijah Wolfson wrote on HuffPost in 2013:
Measles cause ear infections in ten percent of the children infected by the disease, and about five percent get pneumonia. Even scarier is the fact that one or two in every 1,000 infected by the disease die, according to the CDC. With numbers as low as they are right now, this isn't yet cause for concern -- but if we return to rates closer to those of the 1950s, it could become a major epidemic. Consider that the disease still kills about 164,000 people globally every year.
In 2001, 6-year-old Abigale Duffy of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, was recovering from the chickenpox when she contracted pneumococcal bacteria. Her parents believed in vaccinations, but according to her mother, Shannon Duffy Peterson, "at that time, we had a pediatrician who did not push vaccinations and did not recommend the most recent vaccines available. Consequently, my children did not have their chickenpox and pneumococcal vaccinations." Abigale developed a fever one Sunday evening, and later that night died in her mother's arms on the way to the hospital.
Three years ago, in early 2012, 2-month-old Brady Alcaide Riffenburg of Chicopee, Mass. died of pertussis, or whooping cough. Brady's mother, Kathryn Riffenburg, had been vaccinated years before, but later learned a vaccine booster shot during pregnancy would most likely have saved him. Barbara Stechenberg, Chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Baystate Children's Hospital where Brady died, explained that "one of the important things to know is most babies who develop whooping cough get it from an older child or an adult in the family."
Even children who survive bouts with preventable diseases can have their lives altered forever. A 2010 outbreak of meningitis in the Oologah-Talala public school system in Oklahoma killed two children and infected five others. One of the survivors was kindergartener Jeremiah Mitchell. Doctors had to amputate both his arms and legs, plus parts of his eyelids, jaw and ears. "He came out with all his limbs cut off and wrapped up like a mummy -- I fainted," said his mother, Michaela Mitchell. "We cried for a long time."
Jeremiah was vaccinated against other illnesses, but not meningitis, because his school didn't require meningitis vaccinations for children his age. As reported by USA Today, "though his family did everything according to medical recommendations, Jeremiah was exposed because someone brought the disease into their community."
Jenny McCarthy has been described as a "Playmate turned pseudoscientist" who "by dint of sheer energy and celebrity... became the nation's most prominent purveyor of anti-vaxxer ideology." She is president of Generation Rescue, a non-profit group founded in 2005 by Lisa and J.B. Handley, which promotes the discredited idea that children with autism can be cured by unscientific, non-medical methods. Its website claims, "Conventional medicine treats the symptoms of autism. Biomedical treatment addresses the root cause." McCarthy stumbled onto this website within weeks of its debut in 2005, shortly after her son was diagnosed with autism, and soon afterwards began her anti-vaccine crusade.
The false theory that vaccines might cause autism came from a now-retracted 1998 UK study on the MMR vaccine (preventing measles, mumps and rubella) which turned out to have been almost entirely fabricated by its author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield. He made up virtually the entire thing, according to CNN, "misrepresent(ing) or alter(ing) the medical histories of all 12 of the patients whose cases formed the basis of the 1998 study." A 2011 investigation by the British medical journal BMJ called it an "elaborate fraud," and concluded that of the 12 cases, "five showed developmental problems before receiving the MMR vaccine and three never had autism." Wakefield was stripped of his medical license in 2010.
But because it was reported as a credible study at the time, the idea of a vaccine-autism link entered people's minds. It perfectly illustrates how misinformation can spread like a virus. Years later, when the study was exposed as fraudulent, the damage had already been done, since a cottage industry had sprung up around the lies, exploiting the families of children with autism who were desperate for answers to explain why their kids were affected.
What's indisputable is that no real scientific research has ever found evidence vaccines cause autism. "The Earth isn't flat, it's round, and vaccines don't cause autism," says Dr. Paul Offit, Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and co-inventor of a Rotavirus vaccine. "That's just a matter of scientific fact."
The original phony 1998 study sparked a worldwide scare despite being based on falsified data about only 12 children. In 2012, a review of actual, rigorous studies covering over 14.7 million children found no vaccine-autism link in any cases, as recently documented by Upworthy in its "All 7 Billion" series about global health and poverty, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Is it too much to ask Jenny McCarthy to read a simple, well-researched article like the one published by Upworthy and properly educate herself about how no legitimate scientific studies have linked vaccines to autism? And then, to announce to the world she was wrong? It would help undo at least some of the damage she's done to public health and our country's children by pushing phony anti-vaccine propaganda for the past decade.
Now that long-dormant diseases are reappearing, McCarthy has tried to deny her anti-vaxxer history. Worse, she is still misinforming the public.
"I am not anti-vaccine," she said last November, right before the debut of her new SiriusXM radio show. "I'm in this gray zone of, I think everyone should be aware and educate yourself and ask questions. And if your kid is having a problem, ask your doctor for an alternative way of doing the shots," meaning receiving fewer doses at once, which is not medically recommended, since it increases the time children remain unvaccinated and vulnerable to illness.
"The ironic thing is my position has always remained the same. People just never listened to it," McCarthy continued. "Literally, throughout the years, I have said the same thing over and over again. But people will only read headlines instead of looking back and seeing what I've been saying."
Taking a look back shows that in 2007, McCarthy appeared on Oprah and shared her beliefs:
We vaccinated our baby and something happened... Right before his MMR shot, I said to the doctor, 'I have a very bad feeling about this shot. This is the 'autism' shot, isn't it?' And he said, 'No, that is ridiculous. It is a mother's desperate attempt to blame something,' and he swore at me and then the nurse gave [Evan] the shot. And I remember going, 'Oh, God, I hope he's right.' And soon thereafter -- boom -- the soul's gone from his eyes.
I do believe sadly 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 f-cking fault that the diseases are coming back. They're making a product that's sh-t. If you give us a safe vaccine, we'll use it. It shouldn't be polio versus autism.
Later in the same interview, she said, "If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the f-cking measles."
If we ever want to see a meaningful public recantation from Jenny McCarthy, we have to make our views known to the people paying her salary and keeping her on television. Public pressure contributed to the non-renewal in 2014 of her contract to co-host ABC's "The View," after only one year on the job.
McCarthy's new reality show Donnie Loves Jenny premiered Wednesday, January 7, airing on cable channel A&E. In November, the network announced an unscripted production and development deal with D&J Productions, the joint production entity between McCarthy and her new husband Donnie Walhberg. Donnie Loves Jenny is only the first project in that deal.
You can let A&E executives know how you feel about their network giving airtime to Jenny McCarthy by emailing Chairman Abbe Raven -- Abbe.Raven@aenetworks.com, or calling her office at 212-210-9007. Or contact Chief Revenue Officer Mel Berning at 212-210-1321, Mel.Berning@aenetworks.com. Mel is in charge of A&E's ad sales, so you can try the subject lines, "Ask Jenny McCarthy to Publicly State Vaccines Work or A&E Advertisers Will Hear About It," or "Why Is A&E Giving Airtime to a Celeb Whose Anti-Vaccine Propaganda is Killing U.S. Children?"
McCarthy has appeared on ABC's "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve" as a Times Square correspondent since 2011. To reach Disney, the corporate parent of both ABC and A&E, go straight to the top and contact Disney CEO Bob Iger at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through Disney's main switchboard at 818-560-1000.
Kids like Abigale Duffy and Brady Riffenburg can't advocate for themselves anymore. To protect the rest of America's children from similar fates, more of us must speak up until there's no doubt remaining that vaccines are safe, necessary, and they work.
Erik Ose is a writer and political activist and blogs at The Latest Outrage.