Why is Oprah Winfrey promoting vaccine skeptic Jenny McCarthy?

Health and medicine explained.
May 6 2009 11:47 AM

Say It Ain't So, O

Why is Oprah Winfrey promoting vaccine skeptic Jenny McCarthy?

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McCarthy's popularity has created a lot of anger and disbelief in that tiny sliver of society that believes in evidence-based medicine. One person who's feeling particularly frustrated is David T. Tayloe, president of the 60,000-member American Academy of Pediatricians. (Remember them? A pediatrician is a person with a medical degree who takes care of children. Some of them are said to trust science more than celebrities when it comes to health care.)

"I think show business crosses the line when they give contracts to people like Jenny McCarthy," Tayloe says. "If you give her a bully pulpit, McCarthy is going to make people hesitate to vaccinate their children. She has no medical or scientific credentials. It disturbs us that she's given all these opportunities to make her pitch about vaccines on Oprah or Larry King or U.S. News or whatever. We have to scramble to get equal time—and who wants to see a gray-haired pediatrician talking about a serious topic like childhood vaccines when she's out there blasting the academy and blasting the federal government?"

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Still, others involved in the effort to refute the vaccine/autism myth aren't as worried about McCarthy. "Jenny McCarthy doesn't bother me that much because I don't think most people take her as a serious commenter on medicine," said Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine inventor and author of Autism's False Prophets. "I'd be more concerned if it was someone like Meryl Streep, someone seen as person of gravity and good sense."

What's a little sad about this episode is the fact that once upon a time, big stars like Humphrey Bogart, Louis Armstrong, and Elvis Presley stood up for vaccination campaigns to protect the lives of children. (Actress Amanda Peet recently stepped up to counter McCarthy's message, saying that people should get their advice on autism and vaccines from doctors, not actresses. But Peet seems to lack McCarthy's entrepreneurial verve and hasn't drawn the same level of attention.)

In those days, parents and children clamored for vaccination. Especially children in places like the South Side of Chicago or rural Mississippi (where Oprah was born in 1954), who suffered higher rates of polio in the late 1950s because their parents couldn't afford the new vaccine.

Over the past year, new outbreaks of measles, whooping cough, and other vaccine-preventable diseases have occurred in communities with parents who choose not to vaccinate their kids.

Oprah, think of the children.

Arthur Allen is the author of The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl, Ripe, and Vaccine. He is a health writer and editor at Politico.

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