Chastising a celebrity is an exercise in futility. You feel like a kitten being held by the scruff of its neck, scrabbling wildly in the air without drawing blood. Pointless as this may be, though, I will try to talk some sense into Oprah Winfrey, who has decided to go into business with vaccine skeptic Jenny McCarthy.
There is abundant evidence that vaccines don't cause autism. More than a dozen studies, as well as trend data from California and other states, show that neither the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal nor the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine causes autism. In March, a federal court dismissed both of these theories in a most definitive way after hearing weeks of testimony and gathering thousands of pages of evidence.
Jenny McCarthy begs to differ. McCarthy dropped out of nursing school in 1993 to become a Playboy bunny and later starred in an MTV show that focused on her bodily functions. She believes that vaccines made her 7-year-old son autistic—and that she "recovered" him with alternative therapies, as she details in her parenting books. McCarthy has appeared regularly on Larry King Live and Oprah to blast the medical establishment, and last year she led a march on Washington to demand that children get fewer vaccines.
On Wednesday it was announced that Oprah signed McCarthy to a deal, starting with a blog on the Oprah Web site. Though neither woman's people will confirm details of the deal, it will presumably lead to a talk show, as it did for Rachael Ray and Dr. Phil, two other Oprah protégés. Perhaps not every episode of a McCarthy show will address vaccines and autism, but some surely will.
Celebrities take on all kinds of causes. They campaign for presidents, and they rally to save the women of Darfur and the hungry masses of Bangladesh and Africa. Some of these appearances may do some good, while others are merely benign grandstanding. But wealthy, toothsome, vivacious, and sexy Jenny McCarthy's impassioned campaign is actually harmful. Why? Because she is spreading dangerous misinformation—and that could bring some once-controlled diseases back into play.
Her boyfriend, actor Jim Carrey, is even more clueless. At the rally last year, I asked Carrey to give an example of a childhood vaccine we could dispense with. Tetanus, he said. That answer did not reflect a strong—or any, really—grasp of infectious diseases. Children who get tetanus—fortunately, it has been extremely rare in the United States since tetanus vaccination began in the 1920s—suffer horrendous pain, arch their backs, and go into terrible spasms before dying. It's a very natural disease, to be sure, because the germ causing tetanus lives in dirt. It's a germ that will be with us forever, and the only way to prevent it is through vaccination.
For some reason, Oprah and the rest of the entertainment world treat McCarthy as if she were Mother Theresa kissing lepers or Nelson Mandela denouncing apartheid. She's been proven wrong about vaccines, yet she persists in claiming that they are so dangerous that it's better to get vaccine-preventable diseases than get the shots. Oprah's spokesman told me that Jenny's views were more "nuanced" than I presented them. Yet here she is a month ago, in an exchange with Time:
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 fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They're making a product that's shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we'll use it. It shouldn't be polio versus autism.
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