Vaccine Truthers Like Jenny McCarthy Fuel Ignorance and Immunization Hysteria

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As a scientist, I regularly scan the popular news for articles on disease, medicine, and biology. The internet affords the general public an opportunity to search the vastness of the web for information on disease symptoms, as well as new medical cures and research breakthroughs. But the problem with such vast amounts of easily accessible information is that the vetting process for accuracy breaks down. An added complication is the general inability of scientists and doctors to properly explain science and medicine to non-specialists. Journalists step in to act as conduits between the two groups, and often the integrity and interpretation of the message are compromised.

Areas of biomedicine in which the disconnect between science and the public is most obvious – at least in my opinion – are DNA-based technologies, genetically modified foods, and vaccines. The antagonism against the latter has escalated in the past few years, thanks to the involvement of celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy. These individuals oppose vaccination for diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella (MMR), pertussis (whooping cough), and human papilloma virus (HPV) that causes cancer.

The Politics

I typically treat journalism that fails to properly explain scientific findings with a mixture of exasperation and resignation. However, several recent events morphed mild irritation into full-blown disgust at the deliberate misinformation and willful distortion of scientific data that is being messaged by anti-vaccine advocates, including celebrities and the every day citizen.

First, a twitter friend (@bccohan) tweeted a link to a news story reporting that a vaccine for Lyme Disease is being widely used, but only on dogs. That’s right, despite the vaccine having been available since 1998, and even though Lyme Disease is the most prevalent tick-borne disease in the US, the vaccine can’t be administered to humans. You can thank “vaccine victims” who claimed based on anecdotal evidence that the Lyme vaccine causes arthritis, and overly litigious lawyers who eagerly assembled class-action suits on their behalves.

Second was the announcement that Elisabeth Hasselback’s co-host seat on The View couch would be filled by Jenny McCarthy. Thus, one of the world’s most famous and scientifically illiterate anti-vaccine advocates has been given an even larger national platform.

For those who don’t know, McCarthy’s son suffers/suffered from autism that she asserts appeared after he received vaccinations as an infant. Because of increased awareness of autism and McCarthy’s visibility in pop culture, it was quite easy for people to relate to McCarthy’s story and adopt her uninformed and unsubstantiated conclusion. She has since claimed that her son is completely cured of his autism, due to her implementation of untested, alternative medicine. She even wrote a book about it. Yet, it remains unproven that: a) her son even had autism, and b) that vaccines actually cause autism.

However, based on her own misguided beliefs and fueled by a scientific study published 15 years ago, McCarthy and other opponents of childhood immunization have formed the“Vaccine Truthers”. The Anti-Vaccine Crowd champions a cause that it does not completely understand, and that, in fact, has been scientifically debunked. Nevertheless, according to a 2011 University of Michigan study “nearly a quarter of all parents still place ‘some faith’ in celebrities’ counter-claims on vaccinations”.

The Science

Autism, more properly known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), represents a collection of developmental phenotypes (symptoms). Boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls. In 2012, the CDC reported a rate of 1 in 88 (1%) American children, but in 2013, revised that number to 1:50 (2%) children. It is a fair – and accurate, I think – argument that autism is not necessarily increasing in the population, but that awareness is heightened and, more importantly, doctors have become much better at diagnosing the symptoms.

Scientific studies published starting in 1961 to present day nearly all agree that autism fundamentally and primarily has a genetic basis.

Translation: most autism is caused by genetics.

How do we know this?

  • the same disease symptoms or traits have been observed in more than one unrelated family.
  • the same disease symptoms or traits have been observed in more than one member of a family (i.e., parent and child or among siblings).
  • the same disease incidence is observed in sets of identical twins (genetically identical) but not in sets of fraternal twins (genetically share 50% of their DNA).

Many genes have been implicated in causing autism and much research is being done to identify the genes and the mutations that cause autism. The spectrum of phenotypes is due to the fact that different genes are altered in different autism individuals (what we geneticists call genetic heterogeneity), and the behavior or function of the same genes can even differ among individuals (called genetic penetrance or variable expressivity).

Genes “talk” to or depend on each other to function properly for normal brain development. Based on the combination of genes that are mutated and the types of DNA changes, symptoms can vary between autism individuals. Finally, genes interact not only with other genes, but also with environmental factors, such as amounts and types of nutrients or exposures to pollutants (diesel exhaust, mercury, etc.). Thus, autism symptoms may differ depending on whether an individual – or more precisely, that individual’s mother – was exposed to certain environmental triggers that piggybacked with a cadre of mutant genes to alter brain development and function in autism patients.

So, what about vaccines? They are technically environmental exposures, right? Yes. But there is no scientific evidence to support that vaccines cause autism.

So how did the link between the two come about in the first place?

The anti-vaccine movement originated with the English biologist Alfred Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin who believed compulsory vaccination was unethical. The link of vaccination with disease and disability  is thought to have emerged here across the pond in 1982 based on an Emmy award-winning documentary produced by investigative journalist Lea Thompson.

A few years later, the link of vaccines to autism appeared when British researcher Dr. Andrew Wakefield published an article in the medical journal The Lancet, claiming that eight children developed symptoms of autism one month after being vaccinated for measles (MMR). He and his co-authors asserted that the vaccines caused inflammation, especially in the gut, that drove molecules derived from food and normally not found in the bloodstream into the blood. They were then carried to the brain, where they triggered detrimental developmental effects.

The results of this study – and essentially only this study – have fueled the anti-vaccine movement for the past 15 years. But this 1998 study was never replicated, and by that I mean that other scientists actually tried but were unable to find a link between MMR vaccine and autism.

In 2004, ten of the co-authors on the Wakefield The Lancet paper retracted their claims of a MMR vaccine-autism link. Then, The Lancet itself fully retracted the paper in 2010. In that same year, a U.S. Federal Vaccine Claims Court ruled that MMR vaccine, thimerosol (an adjuvant added to vaccines to help trigger an immune response), or both, do not cause autism.

Nevertheless, the damage was done, and many parents around the world immediately reacted by choosing not to vaccinate their children. And the result was that measles cases have increased, hitting a 15-year high in the U.S. in 2011.

In these recent U.S. measles cases, the infections originated in another country. But they were transmitted by someone who came in contact with the American children, all of whom were verified to be unimmunized.

Infectious diseases by definition are transmitted or communicated by people-to-people or people-to-secretion contact. In these modern times of population growth, displacement and migration of people, and common travel between distant destinations, vaccination is not just a U.S. issue. It is a global issue.

Vaccines, like any medicine or pharmaceutical agent, are associated with some side effects. They are usually rare and primarily correspond to reactions to injection of the vaccine, such as fever, rash, headache, or redness and swelling at the site of the needle stick. These symptoms are largely inflammatory responses to what the body considers a new substance – think: stranger-danger! These responses are a normal part of our immune reaction that mobilizes to investigate foreign or uncatalogued substances and then stores information about them in the body’s immune response file cabinet.

None of these side effects or responses equate to diseases such as autism. In fact, the Institute of Medicine – part of the Department of Health and Human Services – published an official report in 2011, concluding “few health problems are caused by or clearly associated with vaccines”

The scientific facts are that immunization saves lives.

Vaccines protect children and adults from infectious diseases. Since the MMR vaccine was first introduced in 1963, our country has had a 99% reduction in the incidence of measles. Similarly, the polio vaccine was developed and administered in the mid-1950s. By 1979, polio was eradicated in the United States.

Vaccines also prevent cancers. In fact, many non-infectious viruses (aka vaccines) are being developed and used as cancer therapeutics.

One may choose to be anti-vaccine for many reasons. But to be anti-vaccine by claiming that scientific evidence supports that vaccines cause disease, death, or harm is simply not factual.

The bottom line: science has proven that vaccines save lives. Moreover, by not vaccinating a child, parents put that child – and other children and adults – at risk.

Beth is professor and biomedical research scientist at a major university in the Southeastern United States. Born and raised in rural Western Maryland, her social and fiscal conservative leanings were cultivated from an early age. In addition to her academic activities, Beth is an editor for three scientific journals. She is also a vocal advocate for open access publishing and is committed to improving communication between scientists and the public. When not in lab, Beth enjoys running, cooking, and following conservative politics. And of course, from April to October, she avidly follows all baseball, especially the Baltimore Orioles.

25 Comments

  1. drklrdbill said:

    It’s really sad that an article like this is needed to convince people that vaccines are not dangerous, but I’m glad you wrote it. If people want to opt-out of getting vaccines for their children, like Adam Baldwin, then they shouldn’t be allowed to go to public schools. So, yes, you would have a “choice” of getting vaccines, but your unvaccinated child will not be around my child.

    • Guest said:

      They already have religious exemptions for vaccinations (I forget which religions in particular have them). My son is vaccinated and I can’t stand Vaccine Truthers — especially when there are children all over the world dying because they can’t get vaccines their families desperately want to save them. So I definitely relate to everyone’s frustration, but banning religious opt out et al can have negative implications for religious liberties in other areas (imho). Unfortunately, this religious issue is diluted by Vaccine Truthers who just lie on the forms to get their kids exemptions — which makes it more difficult to wade through.

      • drklrdbill said:

        You know that I think the religious liberty (FREEDDDDDDDDDDDOMMMM!!!) arugment is a cop out. All someone would have to do is form their own Church of Infectious Diseases that bans any vaccines. If you want to have your “religious freedom” that actually has the potential to harm others, you should have to suffer some consequences, i.e., go to a private religious school with your other disease-ridden friends.

        • rjwest21 said:

          How does it harm others if they’ve been vaccinated?

        • S. R. Mann said:

          One quick example: An adult whose vaccine is expired can catch something and these diseases are always way worse in adults than kids.

        • rjwest21 said:

          I’m not of a mind that it’s the fault of the parent of the unvaccinated child that another adult didn’t renew their own vac. Seems to be a legalistic stretch on par with depending on the meaning of ‘is’, IMO.

          Case in point: my son has autism. My daughter does not. She gets vac’d any time it’s required. We research what my son gets. If someone says “there is a chicken pox outbreak, he needs that vac” then I’ll probably get it to keep him from getting sick, but I’ll research the office & find out what else is in the mixture of chemicals. If someone says “he needs a polio vaccine b/c our records show he hasn’t had one” I’m going to politely say “no, thanks” because there is no polio in Georgia, the south, or the USA and hasn’t been in my lifetime that I know of, so I’m not going to give him an unnecessary vaccine b/c of what has already happened. If, however, cases of polio reappear, then I’ll get him vaccinated.

          And I think my rather LOGICAL stance for my son is hardly dangerous to him or anyone else. He’s susceptible to outside influences affecting his autism and I’m not endangering his already affected neurological disorder when it isn’t necessary.

        • drklrdbill said:

          I’m not following your logic. Do you think vaccines can cause autism or that they can only make an autistic child’s disorder more profound on the spectrum? Because if you think the former, then you are putting both your children at further risk.

        • rjwest21 said:

          The latter. Emphasis on “can”, as in “maybe, maybe not, I dunno”.

          It is a scientifically proven fact that vaccines do not cause autism. And I’m not sure that it’s the vaccines that could be what could affect a genetically predispositioned child….it could be the preservatives, any metals, etc. I dunno.

        • drklrdbill said:

          Vaccines are not 100% effective, for obvious reasons. Some children have medical reasons for needing to be unvaccinated. That is fine, but if kids are just not getting vaccinated because of “religious” freedom, there is a danger that is now presentm

        • rjwest21 said:

          Didn’t see this as I replied to S.R. Mann, but pls see my response, below. For instances when I – as a parent – decide that an individual vaccine is unnecessary for my son I use the religious opt out b/c I’m not taking the chance on damaging my son, who is susceptible to outside influences; whereas my daughter has proven that she can be given pretty much any dose of whatever vaccine. I don’t think that makes my decisions dangerous to my son or anyone else, I think that makes me a logical person using history as my guide & implementing linear thinking when it comes to my son, which I MUST DO.

          And if any of this ever comes across as confrontational, please know folks that it’s not meant to be. I’m just typing.

          Yes, folks like Jenny McCarthy can be dangerous, but at the same time there are now hundreds of thousands of parents worldwide who saw a change in their children the day of their vaccination….I can’t imagine that all of them are uneducated dupes looking for an excuse.

          Remember, we don’t know what causes autism (we know vaccines don’t). I’m sure the genesis is genetic (see what I did there?) but an awful lot of kids were fine up until a point & then they seemed to mentally devolve….everyone saying so can’t be delusional, dishonest or following a playboy centerfold’s meanderings.

    • sevenlayercake said:

      They already have religious exemptions for vaccinations (I forget which religions in particular have them). My son is vaccinated and I can’t stand Vaccine Truthers — especially when there are children all over the world dying because they can’t get vaccines their families desperately want to save them. So I definitely relate to everyone’s frustration, but banning religious opt out et al can have negative implications for religious liberties in other areas (imho). Unfortunately, this religious issue is diluted by Vaccine Truthers who just lie on the forms to get their kids exemptions — which makes it more difficult to wade through

      Don’t know why my first post went down as a guest. Odd.

  2. Adam Shields said:

    This is a well written rebuttal of the autism link. But facts are not the problem. The problem is that people continue to disbelieve the evidence no matter reliability of the studies or how well written the articles are. It is easier to believe in conspiracy theories. That way you have someone to blame when your child (or someone you know) has autism.

    • Beth said:

      i read many articles that cited this very point, including the guilt from knowing something is genetic (not that any of us can really control which genes we carry). thank you for reading and for your viewpoint.

      • Lawful Plunder said:

        There is reason to suspect that de novo gene mutations play a key role in autism.

  3. NotCinderell said:

    I sure wish I had access to that Lyme disease vaccine. I know a lot of people in my area who suffer from it.

  4. kmorrison33 said:

    Excellent article. Think the media can also be given an assist for frequently portraying celebrities as experts regardless of their level of knowledge.

  5. Taxpayer1234 said:

    There was a study done in Japan some years ago that demonstrated there’s no link between MMR vac and autism. Kids there still got autism at the same rate as kids who got the MMR. Even the rate of increase was the same as vaccinated kids. Clearly there’s something else going on.

    Also, here’s an interesting article that links SIDS to a brainstem serotonin abnormality. Since most babies are now put to sleep on their backs to avoid SIDS, it’s possible these “SIDS survivors” may become autistic. We do know that autistic kids have a serotonin deficiency, among other medical issues. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/716500. This might be part of the reason autism cases are increasing.

  6. Lawful Plunder said:

    But let’s be real, because I think the debate over vaccines isn’t the issue.

    Did people realistically think there would be no health consequences (to their children) to the way they lived their lives?

    That there would be no consequences to mothers/ fathers postponing having children until > 30?

    That soda (HFCS) and diet soda (Aspartame) could be consumed like water?

    That diabetes and obesity rates could skyrocket without affecting the health of the offspring?

    That anti-depressants could be popped like sugar pills?

    The fact is, all of these things have taken place within the last 20-30 yrs, at the same time autism rates have increased. And this is just a partial list of the overall assault on genetic health, for lack of a better term. These factors, and undoubtedly many more are the real cause of the upswing in Autism. We simply aren’t living in as healthy a manner as we used to.

    • rjwest21 said:

      Good points & I wouldn’t be surprised if technology in the future shows us how much our chemicals (mainly by way of preservatives) have harmed us. That said, the overwhelming disparity of autism among males versus females is quite the quandry. I drank soda & ate so-so health wise when my daughter was born, while I hadn’t had a soda in over two years and ate very healthily when my son was born. (we had daughter at 30, son at 32, so the age factor is there)
      ====
      We’ve seen tremendous progress in my son by way of supplements & probiotics, so while I like the article I have a bit of an issue with the subtle backhand with the ‘alternative medicine’ swipe. And the hint that the sone of JM – her idiocy a given – not having autism but being misdiagnosed removes any and all ‘science’ argument from the mix b/c it’s based on some dude who wrote an article/book…that ain’t science, that’s conjecture the same sort of trutherism as JM’s vaccine trutherism….really doesn’t belong, IMO. I know if someone saw how my son at 13 is almost ‘normal’ while at 6 he most certainly wasn’t & then said, based on just appearance, that he probably never had autism, I’d be inclined to get confrontational.

      • Lawful Plunder said:

        Thanks! Glad you’re getting good results with your son. And yeah, there seems to be a connection with Autism and gut issues, so probiotics makes sense.

        As for the male/female split, males always tend to be affected more by genetic issues because they only have 1 x chromosome. Females have the equivalent of a backup.

  7. Lawful Plunder said:

    Sharyl Attkisson ‏@SharylAttkisson21h
    Even CDC no longer dismisses a vaccine/autism link as a dispelled “myth.”

  8. Pingback: Opting Out Of Vaccines Should Be An Option For Parents | Skyler Mann: sevenlayercake.com

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