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Jenny McCarthy’s hiring by ‘The View’ raises public-health concerns over vaccine misinformation

McCarthy is the most public face of the anti-vaccine movement, which continues to claim, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, a link between childhood vaccinations and autism.

"Jenny McCarthy's unfounded claims about the dangers of vaccines has been one of the greatest impediments to efforts to vaccinate children in recent decades," said Amy Pisani, the executive director of Every Child by Two.
© Fred Prouser / Reuters

The announcement on Monday that the former model and comedienne Jenny McCarthy would be replacing Elisabeth Haselbeck on ABC’s daytime talk show “The View” has stunned, angered and dismayed many health officials.

McCarthy is, of course, the most public face of the anti-vaccine movement, which continues to claim, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, a link between childhood vaccinations and autism.

Measles, whooping cough and other preventable childhood diseases have made a troubling and often tragic comeback in recent years, in large part because McCarthy and other anti-vaccine conspiracists have frightened some parents into refusing to let their children be vaccinated.

In 2008, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that 25 percent of American adults were familiar with McCarthy’s views about vaccines and autism, and 40 percent said her claims made them more likely to question the safety of vaccines.

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“Jenny McCarthy’s unfounded claims about the dangers of vaccines has been one of the greatest impediments to efforts to vaccinate children in recent decades,” Amy Pisani, the executive director of Every Child by Two, an international vaccination group co-founded by former first lady Rosalynn Carter, told a USA Today reporter on Wednesday.

“Children have died due to this misinformation, and those who perpetuate lies for personal gain ought to be held responsible,” Pisani added.

“The View” has 3.3 million viewers. Most are female, and many are parents. Even if McCarthy’s contract forbids her to talk about vaccinations and autism (and there’s no indication that that’s the case), her presence on the show will give her and her claims about vaccines credibility.

Not a controversy

Indeed, that is already happening. In reporting the story about McCarthy’s hiring by “The View,” many in the media have referred to her views on vaccination and autism as “controversial” — a description that suggests the matter hasn’t been resolved.

But, as other observers are vigorously pointing out — including, fortunately, some in the media — this is not a he-said/she-said issue.

“McCarthy is not expressing a disagreeable political position, she is spreading misinformation that has actual, tangible health risks,” writes Salon.com reporter Alex Pareene. “America’s public health authorities should be sounding the alarm. The American Medical Association and the surgeon general should be publicly calling on ABC to reverse its decision to hire McCarthy. They should have begun the campaign before the announcement was official.”

“Vaccine conspiracies, like so much modern cult conspiracy culture, perpetuates itself and lives on indefinitely thanks to the community-building and archiving of the Internet,” he adds. “With the help of some very prominent advocates, with huge audiences and a great deal of influence, it has spread far beyond the fringe. McCarthy has been one of the movement’s most prominent voices for years, and, infuriatingly, much of the media has treated her bullshit as weepy celebrity “awareness-raising” fare instead of crackpotted nonsense.”

‘Bamboozling parents’

Treating anti-vaccine nonsense as a legitimate medical controversy has had very real and serious consequences — and not just for parents who refuse to vaccinate their own children.

“Because some parents have been bamboozled by McCarthy’s scientifically bogus claims, infectious diseases like whooping cough and measles are now on the increase,” writes Ronald Bailey, a science reporter for Reason magazine. “According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last year saw the biggest outbreak of whooping cough since 1955 and 18 children died of the disease. Vaccine refusniks misled by McCarthy and others are not just endangering their own kids. For example, the majority of cases of whooping occur in infants, who depend on herd immunity — the broad protection that comes when enough members of a population are protected by vaccine or other immunity — because they are too young to be vaccinated.”

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Unfortunately, countering medical misinformation — once it’s in the public’s consciousness — is extremely difficult, as Pat Garofalo, an editor at U.S. News & World Report, explains:

McCarthy dresses up her pseudoscience in the guise of looking out for the best interests of children, which, understandably, has a way of sticking in the minds of concerned parents. As [Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s] Seth Mnookin said, “Once you introduce misinformation into a society, it then lives on its own. And, as we’ve seen with vaccines, it’s impossible to unscare someone. Once an idea is planted in your mind, especially about your children, you can’t just then sort of wipe the board clean.”

McCarthy has even said that some horrendous diseases should be allowed to reemerge in order to boost the creation of “safe” vaccines: “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 you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.” That’s not a message that should be given pride of place for the millions of people watching “The View,” any more than we need climate change deniers on the Senate floor.

Decision unlikely to be reversed

I doubt that “The View” is going to reverse its decision about McCarthy, even though, as MIT’s Seth Mnookin noted on his own blog Tuesday, her hiring is “giving the network’s imprimatur to someone who has worked, methodically and relentlessly, to undermine public health.”

Yesterday, in “(dis)honor of McCarthy’s new perch,” Mnoonkin posted online the “Jenny McCarthy’s Mommy Instinct” chapter from his book, “The Panic Virus.” It describes her rise to anti-vaccine conspiricist fame, from her acceptance of the New Age “Indigo Children” philosophy to her infamous 2007 appearance on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” to her taking over of Generation Rescue, an organization that promotes all sorts of unproven treatments for children with autism. You’ll find Mnoonkin’s chapter, with all of its odd and disturbing details, on his blog at PLoS.org.