My skeptical radar is activated each time I hear a celebrity endorse a product or promote a cause. While generally harmless, celebrities have such large audiences that they have the ability to broadcast their message to a large number of people, and can impact their decisions.
Celebrity endorsements in sports, for example, will take a famous athlete, put their name on a box/bottle, and try to catch the consumer’s eye. For substantial amounts of cash, they will lend their name to a product that they may or may not even use, and which may or may not have some benefit to the consumer.
I am concerned, however, when celebrities endorse and promote something that has an obvious negative impact to an individual or to a group of individuals, and when they claim they know the “truth” or “they are the experts” (as if there is some sort of conspiracy and only they have access to the real information).
Case and point, Jenny McCarthy.
Jenny has sipped the antivax Kool Aid, and now spreads her gospel across any media that will let her. She is a strong believer that autism is a direct result from vaccines. I will not spend any time debunking this myth, as it has been covered in countless articles and science journals, but I will review the common misconception surrounding vaccines, and the impact of these misconceptions.
You can make an argument that vaccines have saved more lives than any other medical discovery (smallpox alone has killed approximately 500 million people, until its vaccine was developed), and research shows no evidence to indicate a link between vaccines and autism. No matter which evidence or advantage is put forward, the antivax movement will not change their opinion (sure, maybe there are some, but the big names, like Jenny, won’t). Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s study on autism and vaccines* has been formally retracted by the Lancet. Surely, this would sway Jenny’s to the rational side? No, Wakefield is being treated as a martyr.
The fact of the matter is, Jenny McCarthy is not helping people. She is jeopardizing the lives of children: vaccinated, and not. When the general population loses herd immunity, then very young kids (babies), who aren’t old enough to take certain vaccines, are at risk.
Phil Plait, says it best on his blog, Bad Astronomy:
“If you think Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and the rest of the ignorant antiscience antivax people are right, then read this story. I dare you. David McCaffery writes about his daughter, Dana, who was four weeks old when she died. Too young to get vaccinated herself, she contracted whooping cough because vaccination rates in that part of Australia are too low to provide herd immunity. This poor little girl died in her father’s arms, and the blame rests squarely on the antivaccination movement.”
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Andrew Wakefield’s delusions have expanded to the point where he will go down as one of the most notorious cranks in medical history. In a rambling interview with the illustrious Mike Adams of NaturalNews, Wakefield says all the great thinkers of medical history are ignored in their lifetime. Many are eventually recognized for their brilliance, but some (and I suspect Wakefield is one of these) are never recognized.
Wakefield, as you may remember, first made a name for himself at a press conference prior to the publication of what should have been a widely ignored article on an observational study of twelve children involving a possible connection between bowel disorders and developmental disorders. The paper had nothing to do with vaccine safety. At the press conference on 26 February 1998 to promote the paper (published 28 February 1998), Wakefield shocked his colleagues by using the occasion to suggest that the MMR vaccine, in use in the United States since the early 1970s and in Great Britain for a decade, could be responsible for the rising rates of autism. He speculated about “some children” having especially sensitive immune systems that made them unable to handle the three vaccines at once. He made further speculations about autism and asserted that he could no longer “support the continued use of the three vaccines given together.” We now know that he was hoping to cash in on a patent for a single shot measles vaccine. He was then, and continues now, to just make stuff up.
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Many people believe that childhood MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccinations are linked to childhood autism, and that the link was covered up by the government and medical establishment. The vaccine-autism link claim was originally made by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and published in a small 1998 case report. The British General Medical Council found he had acted unethically in his research, and his paper, which was championed by celebrities including Jenny McCarthy, was retracted. The vaccine-autism link has been completely discredited in follow-up studies and research.
- Vaccines and Jenny McCarthy: the Oprah mea culpa interview doctors want to see (drjengunter.wordpress.com)
- On Ignorance: The Anti-Vaccine Movement – Don’t come cryin’ to me when your child has whooping cough, or rubella, or polio, or some other “outdated” disease you were too ignorant to vaccinate against. (michiganjournal.org)
- Medical Myths: When Urban Legends Kill (livescience.com)