No one is quite sure how many people were living on the American continents when Columbus landed on Hispaniola. The general scholarly consensus is that the population was at least 50 million, but there’s considerable evidence for a larger population, possibly as many as 100 million. But then came pandemic, the greatest in history. When we talk about The Black Death, the plague that devastated Europe in the mid-fourteenth century and subsequently, most scholars come to the horrific conclusion that as many as a third of all the people in Europe may have died. The Native American pandemic was almost certainly much worse, per capita. Up to 90 percent of Native Americans may have died, of smallpox, mumps, measles, and a noxious stew of other diseases.
Let’s talk about smallpox. It’s surely one of the greatest killers in history, with an 80% mortality rate for infected children, accounting for millions of deaths annually. As recently as 1967, the World Health Organization estimates that smallpox claimed two million victims. Today, however, due to widespread vaccination of children, smallpox has officially been eradicated. One of the greatest killers in history, a disease that has caused untold misery and heartache and death, is no more. That surely must count as one of the greatest public health triumphs in human history.
Mumps was once a deadly and virulent disease. So was measles. Neither has yet been eliminated, but the widespread use of the MRR vaccine, which protects children from mumps, measles and rubella, has made them pretty rare.
When I was a kid, we had to go to the doctor and get a shot; our vaccinations. I guess I was about five. That would have been the MMR. Later, I remember when I was in elementary school, all us kids were pulled out of class, and we all were herded into the lunchroom, and given vaccinations. I remember we were given a sugar cube in a little paper cup by a kindly though harrowed-looking school nurse: polio vaccines. It was just normal. It was what happened.
In 1998, the Lancet (one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world) published an article by a Dr. Andrew Wakefield suggesting a link between vaccinations and autism. The paper has since been retracted, Dr. Wakefield’s research was shown to be fraudulent, and he has been stripped of his medical license. The Institute of Medicine cited over a thousand peer-reviewed articles in the medical literature in a study that concluded that no link between vaccinations and autism exists. The Journal of Pediatrics conducted a second study, and reached the same conclusion. There is no credible reason to conclude that vaccinations have any connection to autism.
Jenny McCarthy is a former MTV VJ, a former Playboy bunny, a model and actress and television personality. I don’t mean to speak dismissively of her, but she does strike me as one of those people who become celebrities without ever having done much for which they might be celebrated. Having said that, I’ve always liked her. She had a comedy show on MTV which was pretty funny. She had a sitcom, which failed, and she’s been in some movies, essentially all of them terrible: BASEketball, Scream III, both of which I (regrettably) saw, and Dirty Love, which, whew, dodged a bullet there. She’s charming and funny and doesn’t take her beauty terribly seriously–that’s her package. She also can’t act. Basically, she’s able to play Jenny McCarthy. And all that is why she’s sort of a natural for The View. She’s scheduled to replace Elizabeth Hasselbeck, who played the role of ‘pretty blonde token conservative.’ I always sort of liked Hasselbeck too, on the exceedingly rare occasions when I watched The View. I thought she had guts, taking on Rosie and Whoopi and the rest of them. Jenny McCarthy will bring comic timing, personality and charisma.
And. . . less positive qualities.
McCarthy married film director John Asher in 1999. She had a baby, Evan, in 2002. In 2005, Evan was diagnosed with autism, though some doctors believe his symptoms are more consistent with Landau-Kleffner syndrome. In her book, Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism, a book I have not read, and in subsequent appearances on Oprah’s show (which I have seen, the show and Jenny McCarthy’s appearances on it), she claimed that Evan’s condition ended her marriage, as Asher couldn’t handle it. I have no doubt whatever that the entire situation, her son’s condition and coping with it in the midst of dealing with a deeply troubled marriage was tremendously difficult and painful. I have tremendous sympathy for her, and for her son. She’s been through a lot. She’s worked tirelessly to find different treatments for her son. She claims to have found one that worked for him. Power to her.
However much sympathy we may have for her, though, she has used her status as a celebrity to discourage people from vaccinating their children. She has spoken out repeatedly against vaccinations. She believes that vaccines cause autism. She proselytizes for that point of view. And she has been labeled a ‘threat to public health’ for taking that stance.
A few points seem worth making in this regard:
1) Jenny McCarthy is an American citizen, and has the right to voice her opinion on any subject she chooses to address. ABC similarly has the right to put her on their most popular daytime program.
2) If you’re a parent of a young child, you enter an entirely new world, of fear and paranoia and desperation and love. You feel incredibly vulnerable. Every time your child does anything, you want to tell people, and you want to know what it means. And if she gets sick, it feels like the end of the world. You’re willing to listen to anyone, however crazy they might seem. If a hobo in the street tells you you’re not swaddling properly, you’ll trade him a fifth of Jack Daniels for swaddling advice. If your dotty Aunt Caroline says that it’s bad to own a cat, because cats can suck the life right out of your infant, just suck it right out of there, you may well decide to get rid of dear old Mr. Tibbles, even if you love him, know he would never hurt you, and even if you think Aunt Caroline is senile. You listen to advice from everyone, including doctors, yes, but you also don’t trust doctors. They might be wrong, you know. And this is OUR BABY.
3) An attractive, authoritative, confident sounding Mom may be the one person you listen to the most, even if you don’t know her personally at all. This may be especially true if she’s on TV, and especially on a program with someone like Oprah Winfrey or Barbara Walters. And if she tells you, ‘the conventional wisdom is. . . . and here’s why it’s wrong. . . . ‘, well, that’s gold. You don’t want conventional wisdom. This is your kid we’re talking about.
4) Really really smart people can have the most astounding blind spots, and can come to believe some of the most extraordinary nonsense. Case in point: I think Steve Jobs was one of the most brilliant Americans ever. But Jobs had this special ‘fruitarian’ diet he swore by. Ashton Kutcher, preparing to play Jobs in a movie, tried the diet–it nearly destroyed his pancreas. Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer. This genius, but he also had this screwy diet he believed in, and it may even have killed him.
I think Oprah is brilliant. I suspect that Jenny McCarthy’s IQ is way way up there. I think she’s probably really bright. But . . . blind spots. There are even Supreme Court judges who believe that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, for heck’s sake.
5) There is no credible evidence suggesting a link between vaccination and autism. None. The one doctor who said there was turned out to be a fraud. I think it’s a little mean to create a jennymccarthybodycount.com website. Sort of personalizes the issue in unfortunate ways. But if I was a public health official, I suspect that, uh. . . . Jenny McCarthy probably wouldn’t be my favorite celebrity.
6) I think Jenny McCarthy, by her presence on The View, is likely to persuade at least some parents to not vaccinate their children. And I think children may well die as a result. Which leads me to. . . .
7) Maybe possibly ABC should rethink this decision?
Fair? Unfair? I will admit that I haven’t carefully researched the ‘vaccination/autism’ link at all carefully. I don’t really think I need to. This isn’t an issue with two sides. This is an issue about which the entire medical establishment agrees completely.
So vaccinate your kids. Seriously, vaccinate them. It’s really really important. And if Jenny McCarthy says she’s got this great salsa recipe, hey, try it, maybe it’s great. But she’s wrong about vaccines.