So vaccinations are in the news again, with outbreaks of measles in Ontario and in BC, and my mind wanders to thoughts about Jenny McCarthy. I hold the view that Jenny is point zero of the ‘outbreak’ of the anti-vaccination movement. A few months ago there was an online article that was claiming she had retracted her son’s autism diagnosis. She has since come out with an official statement that discounts this article and plans to take legal action against the online media source. Irealize many have Jenny on a pedestal and believe she has raised awareness of the terrible consequences of vaccinations. I feel sad for Jenny.
Vaccinations are in the news again.
So why should we care?
To be honest Jenny influenced me – just a little bit. At the time that Jenny was standing on her soap box and proclaiming the evils of immunization, we were trying to figure out what was going on with our child and her acute illnesses, her mounting medical conditions, and her diagnosed but unattributed global developmental delay.
Kate does not have autism. In the early days of working on a diagnosis for Kate, there was some discussion about her ‘global developmental delay’ and possible autism. We kept asking the question because we were struggling to define her developmental delay and identify how to support her and what services/interventions/therapies might work best for her.
I wanted answers to help Kate and as she was still quite young, I questioned anything and everything that we put into her body – including immunizations. Kate was considered fragile and there was little known about the unanticipated impact immunizations could have on her and her undiagnosed condition; would it work, would it not, or would it complicate her medical condition. As I was exploring the question of autism, I started to read and found Jenny (McCarthy). I read her positions and I even read (scanned through) her book about how she ‘cured’ her son Evan. I am very capable of critical thinking and analysis, but I think the very exposure to all things Jenny as it related to immunizations and autism influenced my thinking.
I could blame pop culture and my occasional watching of E-Talk or Entertainment Tonight or Oprah. We can all blame Jenny in some way for the anti-vaccination movement, and that blame is coming in spades now with the discounting and a full retraction of the one ‘scientific’ article which supported her theory of immunization causing autism, and which has ignited a social revolution that is anti-vaccination. But I am not sure she is to blame. I do think she could have had more awareness that her impact as a pop culture personality would have on the broader population. I do think she had a responsibility to temper her public position with true evidence and research and support proper scientific discourse about her ideas and claims. I don’t blame her because she did what we all have done and what those of you who haven’t had to yet would do for your own children. She fought for her child. She did what she thought was best.
All she knew is that something was going horribly wrong with her son and she needed someone to listen. She needed help for Evan. She pushed for answers where there were none, and in the pursuit for answers she found a diagnosis that made sense and seemed to fit. Something that occurs more commonly than not in the rare and undiagnosed disease community. When she had that diagnosis, she did everything in her power to ‘fix’ what was wrong with Evan. She went everywhere and talked to everyone – again in the pursuit of fighting for her child. Where she went wrong was losing sight that what might work for Evan, and how she thinks she ‘cured’ him wasn’t based on evidence, at best it was anecdotal. She has a right to pursue her instinct for Evan, but she was wrong it trying to ‘sell’ it to the rest of the world, and those working with her were wrong as well. She lost her way as a mama bear and became an unfortunate advocate. Rather than working with the scientific community to prove the theory she feels so strongly about, she worked against known evidence and science and she has created a very difficult and dangerous situation for the world community.
It is hard to believe that someone like Jenny McCarthy can wield that kind of power. But when you have any element of celebrity and access to the talk show circuit with moms watching and a scary story to tell, watch out.
I really don’t blame Jenny, but I do blame people for not gathering the proper information and thinking critically for themselves. I feel public health officials and agencies should shoulder some blame for not being in front of the tidal wave of public worry about vaccinations and showing more leadership. Vaccinations are scary, you are putting a needle in your baby’s arm on a regular basis, and the public health message has not been consistent and informative about why they are so important for well children, for chronically unwell children and most importantly, for those that can’t be vaccinated.
Parents Want Information
Your doctor tells you to get vaccinated, so you do, but that doctor/patient relationship is changing. Parents and patients are asking more questions of their doctor’s, they are thinking for themselves and misguided or not, they listen/watch social media, and celebrities with a cause, and are influenced by anecdotal opinion. This generation of parents hasn’t lived through epidemics of measles and mumps, or lost a pregnancy due to rubella. In my opinion, there is a responsibility for the public health community to better educate and increase awareness, by sharing more information about vaccinations, and what can happen if we stop vaccinating. Simply being told that they are safe by your doctor is not enough anymore. (Perhaps public health need a celebrity spokesperson of their own).
We had to suspend Kate’s vaccination schedule at one time, while her underlying undiagnosed disease was being investigated, but not because I thought they had caused autism (though I admit did worry in the back of my mind if her developmental delay had been impacted in someway by vaccinations). Now, as it turns out, we no longer have a vaccination choice. Kate’s b-cell hypogammagloblunemia caused by her mitochondrial disease, hampers the effectiveness of vaccinations for her. She doesn’t mount the immune response a typical child does. As a result she has been re-vaccinated with vaccinations she has already received, beyond the normal vaccination ‘schedule’, in hopes that she will have some degree of protection. We’ve since learned, that the vaccination response has not been sustained in Kate, and she again has no protection.
My daughter is at high risk for contracting measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, meningococcus and pneumococcus should she be exposed.
The bottom line for me in my decision-making process is that if Kate acquires any one of these diseases she can become very sick. It was better to make her safe based on the scientific evidence than to risk her contracting such diseases which could seriously complicate her mitochondrial disease. But I no longer have a choice to vaccinate her, and because others are not vaccinating their children – what I call ‘the Jenny McCarthy effect’ – Kate is at higher risk as the rate for diseases controlled through vaccination are on the rise.
The ‘herd effect’ is less effective.
Yes, we have been protected thus far, because we have worked together as a society to vaccinate and reduce the prevalence of these diseases, but that is now showing cracks and being compromised. I think this is a point that many parents don’t realize, or don’t consider. We did not live through the time when these vaccinations were not available and these diseases killed children, or caused them significant harm, and we are now travelling the world more than ever before and visiting areas that have endemic disease. By not vaccinating your child because of unsupported claims, you are putting others at risk. On the other hand, you probably have vaccinated families to thank for you child not having yet contracted one of these terrible diseases by minimizing your unvaccinated child’s exposure.
Not everyone has the choice to be vaccinated, and the risk of these diseases to children who are already medically fragile and who don’t have a vaccination choice can be devastating.
I understand that I am asking you to vaccinate your child to protect mine. But I am asking you to make a reasonable choice – a proven and effective choice – to protect your child also. I am not asking you to put your child at risk. Vaccinations do not cause autism. I challenge anyone to find a scientific article that can state that they do as scientific fact and published in a reputable medical journal. Vaccinations rarely cause adverse events, in Ontario last year there were 7.2 serious events for every 1 million vaccines. Measles kills 1 in 1000.
My last random thought about Jenny McCarthy is I feel sad for her. There is a lot of blame pointed in her direction, and she has been sorely misguided. I understand where she started in this journey, but I don’t support where she took it.