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?

Actress Jenny McCarthy (L), her son Evan, carried by actor Jim Carrey (C). Click image to expand.
Jenny McCarthy, her son, Evan, carried Jim Carrey, and Carrey's daughter, Jane

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.

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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.

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?"

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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