Published in the National Post, May 18, 2009
Concern over the safety of childhood vaccines grew to a crescendo in the years following a study in the late 90s that claimed a link between autism and certain needles.
Subsequent studies proved those fears largely unfounded, and medical professionals were relieved that the science was able to quell most parents’ fears. Now, however, doctors are worried that Oprah Winfrey’s tacit endorsement of one of vaccination’s biggest critics will give rise to a new round of vaccine hysteria.
Pediatric associations in Canada and the United States are worried that the actress and former Playboy bunny, Jenny McCarthy, will use a new deal with Oprah to promote her emotionally resonant vaccine-skeptical views, despite the fact that they are not scientifically backed.
Ms. McCarthy suggests her son’s autism was caused by the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine he received when he was 15 months old and she, along with boyfriend Jim Carrey, is a spokesperson for the “green our vaccines” campaign, which alleges there are toxins in childhood vaccines.
Ms. McCarthy announced what her publicist calls a “development relationship” with Oprah’s company, Harpo, earlier this month. Her first gig in the deal is a Give it Up Before Summer blog on Oprah.com where Ms. McCarthy blogs about her daily battle to give up refined sugar.
Since Ms. McCarthy began Give it Up Before Summer earlier this month, she has blogged about how to refuse a cinnamon bun on a first-class flight and how her poop contains too much yeast, among other topics. Don Halcom, a spokesperson for Harpo, said it is too soon in the deal with Ms. McCarthy to known whether she will use the blog to discuss her ideas on childhood vaccination.
“It’s in her voice and it’s her blog,” Mr. Halcom said. “I wouldn’t want to speculate on anything in the blog.”
In the United States, approximately 95% of children entering kindergarten are vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is the greatest vaccine rate in U.S. history, but the number of parents who voluntarily choose not to vaccinate because they are worried about the safety of vaccines is also growing, says Dr. Robert Frenck, who is a pediatrics professor at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Centre and an expert in infectious diseases.
This vaccine skepticism led to a measles outbreak in California in 2008 where a 7-year-old-boy who was not imunized infected 11 other children. Seventy other children were quarantined in their homes for three weeks. None of the children in the California outbreak died, but measles leads to potentially fatal brain swelling in one out of 1,000 children. It can also cause pneumonia.
There is no scientfic evidence linking vaccines to autism or other childhood diseases, Dr. Frenck said, but he is worried Ms. McCarthy’s deal with Oprah could give her and her vaccine-skeptical views undeserved credibility.
“The danger is, if somebody hears something in a venue where it’s given credibility, they’re going to believe it,” Dr. Frenck said.
He said part of the reason many parents blame the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine for autism is that one of the first indicators of autism is delayed speech.
Children usually start speaking around 12 months. This is also around the time they receive the MMR vaccine. Just because two events occur around the same time in a child’s life, does not mean one causes the other, Dr. Frenck said.
Vaccine skepticism is furthered by the fact that the newest generation of parents grew up in an era in which diseases such as polio and measles have been largely eradicated through vaccination programs. Dr. Frenck said visiting a childhood friend stricken with polio as a boy was enough to convince him of the necessity of vaccines.
“I’m 54. When I was growing up, there were all these diseases still,” Dr. Frenck said. “I saw a little girl I played with in an iron lung and it scared me to death.”
The beginnings of the anti-vaccine movement that is gaining momentum in the United States today can be traced back to the United Kingdom in the late ’90s when Dr. Mark Wakefield published a study in the British medical journal The Lancet, linking the childhood MMR vaccine to autism.
The science behind the article was later disproved and the article was pulled from the magazine.
Two years later, there was a measles outbreak in Ireland. Three children died.
Increasing Internet usage has accelerated the spread of such mis-information about vaccines in the United States and in Canada, says Dr. Kumanan Wilson, who holds a Canada research chair in public health policy at the Ottawa Hospital.
Vaccine skeptics are using social networking sites to meet other skeptics and they can share their views through blogs and Web sites, he said.
“The fact is that proponents of these theories have other avenues available to them that they didn’t have in the past,” Dr. Wilson said.
Dr. Wilson said Oprah is risking her own reputation by giving Ms. McCarthy such a public forum to share what could be dangerous views.
“She is risking her credibility,” Dr. Wilson said.
In Canada, the number of parents who choose not to vaccinate is lower than in the United States, but this does not make celebrities who promote vaccine skepticism any less concerning for Canadian doctors.
As once-forgotten childhood diseases, such as measles, make a comeback Dr. Noni MacDonald, a professor of pediatrics at Dalhousie University who specializes in infectious disease, said it might take more North American outbreaks to re-convince parents that vaccination is necessary.
Dr. MacDonald said Ms. McCarthy’s personal story of a son with autism is compelling, but actual advice about how to deal with brain diseases should be left to experts.
“If your child had a brain tumour, would you want Jenny McCarthy giving advice? Then why is this any different?”
Ms. McCarthy’s publicist would not give details of the deal with Harpo, but said in a statement that Ms. McCarthy and Oprah are “exploring possibilities across a variety of platforms.”
Similar deals with Dr. Phil and Rachel Ray have lead to talk show spin-offs.