Comedienne turned Playboy centerfold turned autism advocate Jenny McCarthy may not have a medical degree like Dr. Mehmet Oz. But she has publicly embraced some medical opinions that are even more flimsily supported by scientific evidence than some of those espoused by her TV colleague.
And now that McCarthy has got a seat on “The View,” she’ll have a similarly vast audience to misinform.
When she’s not holding forth on sex -- and let’s face it, McCarthy’s probably no less qualified than many others to speak expertly on the subject -- McCarthy portrays herself as an expert on the subject of autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder with which her 11-year-old son, Evan, was diagnosed in 2005. Since 2008, when she became president of the autism organization Generation Rescue, she has been a leading voice in the community of activists who believe that childhood immunizations cause autism.
McCarthy has said her son was handed to her after his birth, “pre-vaccinated with a Band-Aid on his foot,” and that was the beginning of all the trouble. (It should be noted here that no vaccine is administered on the foot immediately after birth. But a phenylketonuria test, which ensures that a baby has an enzyme necessary for normal growth and development, is routinely conducted at that time.)
McCarthy has also asserted that with measures such as detoxifying the body of heavy metals and yeast and maintaining a gluten-free, dairy-free diet, an autistic child can recover.
This is quackery begotten of fraudulence, exacerbated by mistrust of science and panic over a disorder that upends parents’ lives and their hopes for their children. Add celebrity to that already combustible mix, and you get a fiasco that has already opened the door to the resurgence of preventable childhood diseases such as measles and pertussis.
Where did Jenny McCarthy get her ideas? It’s probably best to start in 1998, with Andrew Wakefield, the British physician and researcher whose research first linked autism with the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) Vaccine. In an article published in the respected British medical journal The Lancet, Wakefield and his collaborators claimed they had discovered a link between the MMR vaccine and subsequent diagnoses of autism, as well as a gastrointestinal disorder.
Against the backdrop of an alarming rise in autism cases, the study commanded an immediate audience among parents of autistic children seeking answers and other skeptics of the biomedical industry. In touting the study’s findings, Wakefield called for the suspension of vaccinations with the MMR vaccine until further research could prove it safe.
Subsequent efforts to replicate Wakefield’s findings failed. But vaccination rates began a steep decline anyway, and a new generation of parent activists -- skeptics of the biomedical industry’s claim on their children -- was born. Meanwhile, the findings spurred additional research, which suggested that the specific culprit in vaccines administered to children was the widely used preservative thimerosal. The MMR vaccine fingered by Wakefield as a cause of autism didn’t have thimerosal, but until it was largely removed as a preservative in vaccines around the year 2000, several others did, including those for hepatitus B, diptheria, tetanus and pertussis, and haemophilus B influenza.
The belief that the preservative, which contains mercury, was responsible for autism has prompted a surge in the “detoxification” therapies, including chelation use, that McCarthy favors. And the continuing belief that autism is linked to a gastrointestinal disorder leads to the view that diet without gluten or of dairy will help those with autism.
But the bases for these beliefs are, in the end, all bunk. Wakefield was stripped of his right to practice as a physician in Britain in 2010, after a statutory tribunal of the UK Medical Council found that his autism research was dishonest and irresponsible, and may have been motivated by a profit-making scheme.
The Lancet retracted the article that kicked off the entire anti-vaccine movement. And after a lengthy review of the medical research, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine found the “evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship” between vaccine containing thimerosal and autism. The American Medical Assn., the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Medical Toxicology and the World Health Organization followed suit and rejected any such link.
In the meantime, scientists have been making fitful progress in unraveling the mystery of autism, linking it to a variety of genetic variations and to factors as diverse as advanced age of the father to exposure in utero to cigarette smoke.
But a 2009 article in the New England Journal of Medicine found that in states that allow schoolchildren to be exempted from vaccination for personal or philosophical reasons, the rate of vaccine refusal went from 0.99% in 1991 to 2.54% in 2004. In Michigan, Colorado and Oregon, where vaccine refusal runs high, those flagging vaccination rates have been linked to outbreaks of pertussis and measles.
And undeterred by medical evidence, McCarthy has published three books on autism and told Dr. Oz recently that her son has “recovered” from autism after years of following a gluten-free, dairy-free diet and detoxifying chelation therapy.
[For the Record, July 19 and July 27, 2013: An earlier version of this online article incorrectly stated that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine had contained the preservative thimerosal. It did not. Also, the post previously included a quote from Jenny McCarthy whose veracity has since been called into question.]