To celebrate July 4th, the Weeklings Editorial Board brings you an in-depth look at the least acceptable among us. Although only living figures were considered, space was limited and deliberations were intense. In the end, there were fifteen good men (and women, but mostly men) chosen. God bless this great land.
There are a lot of jokes about Jenny McCarthy, and I can’t pretend I don’t know why. Once a pin-up girl, she became famous for her bawdy humor and the shameless promotion of her sex appeal, which helped her build the large platform she now uses to spread suspicion of the highly successful vaccine program in the United States, that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
None of my issues with Jenny McCarthy are about her body, her nudity or her big mouth. I love big-mouthed women. I like crass, dirty, sassy, inappropriate, frat boy-mouthed women with opinions, regardless of whether they’ve shown their nipples in public. And I love a ferocious mama-bear fighting for her children.
I don’t care that she’s more noteworthy for talking about her bush on Oprah than for medical or scientific education. Jenny McCarthy is a mother-advocate, just like many other mother-advocates before her, very few of whom had medical or scientific training before they started speaking out on behalf of their kids.
While others may slut-shame her and disregard her advocacy because of her past, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate what makes Jenny McCarthy great. She refuses to be stuck in the box of “Playboy chick” or “MTV bimbo” and instead dared to believe that women can be sexy, beautiful, highly made-up, surgically-enhanced, and consensually seen nude by millions of people, all while holding strong opinions on tough subjects. This former pin-up isn’t afraid of not being liked, and that’s the best thing about Jenny McCarthy. This woman won’t be shamed for her past. She will get shit done.
The problem, of course, is the shit she’s trying to get done and the way she’s going about it.
-According to the World Health Organization, more than 1,500,000 children under the age of five died of vaccine-preventable diseases in the year 2008. It’s hard to look at a number like that and imagine that Jenny McCarthy and other celebrities are actively waging campaigns against our vaccine program. How can we even comprehend the deaths of 1.5 million children? Imagine the entire population of Philadelphia wiped off the map…but just small kids.
They’re not our kids, are they? They’re not white kids, or Western kids. They’re other people’s kids.
Our children are safe from the diseases that kill so many children around the world, including Polio (which, yes, is still killing children) because we have had a highly successful vaccine program here in the United States for decades. Our vaccine program has worked so well, in fact, that it’s been called a victim of its own success. That is, people are no longer afraid of Polio, the measles, deadly forms of vaccine-preventable meningitis, HIB and many other diseases because we simply never saw our friends and neighbors die from them.
But my parents and grandparents did. We even had a U.S. President who was disabled as a result of a disease that we have eradicated from our population.
I take this issue personally because I’ve seen the effects of vaccine-preventable diseases, and how their resurgence puts kids at risk. I had to rush my own son to the emergency room when he contracted Varicella from unvaccinated children in his swim class, despite having had the first shot in the two-shot series as a toddler. He developed pneumonia and was a very, very sick little boy.
Varicella, in case you didn’t know, is Chicken Pox, the disease you most often hear parents of small kids say is harmless. You’ll often hear parents say, “Oh, we all had it and look at us, we’re fine.”
Not all of us were fine, actually. As recently as the early 1990s, children were dying of Varicella-related complications, even previously healthy kids. From 1988-1995, more 10,000 children were hospitalized each year for Varicella complications. 100-150 children died from complications of the disease each year, most were previously healthy.
Those are huge numbers, considering the amazing medical care (and the existence of Acyclovir, an anti-viral that can be given when Chicken Pox first shows up) we have had in the United States in the last twenty years. Since the introduction of the vaccine, the rate of hospitalizations related to Chicken Pox has plummeted (a staggering 71% decline in hospitalizations related to Varicella was noted for the years 2000-2006). The rates of babies contracting the illness who are too young to have the vaccine plummeted as well (by 90%). Why? Because the vaccine is working to eliminate Varicella from our population, thereby protecting babies, those very rare people for whom the vaccine didn’t work (such as my son), and for the immunocompromised who cannot have the shot.
But people forget about those kids who died as recently as the 1990s. We forget about them because people like Jenny McCarthy are pulling at our heartstrings with stories of how their children developed signs of Autism soon after being vaccinated.
-So why don’t I think Jenny McCarthy is among the worst people in America?
Because she’s just a mom. Like me. A mom who had a horrible thing happen to her child. When he was young, he developed a dangerous seizure disorder. Jenny, like so many of us, became desperate for answers and went from specialist to specialist to get one. Finally, a neurologist told her that Evan had Autism as well as the disorder causing the seizures.
It’s important to note that Jenny’s timeline for the events surrounding Evan’s diagnoses is unclear. In some interviews she notes that the symptoms showed up not long after his MMR vaccine. She also notes that she doesn’t think the MMR specifically caused the Autism, but that it, combined with the other vaccines he’d been given triggered conditions he was already prone to.
McCarthy’s commitment to helping her son, and other children like him, is admirable. And some of her causes and safe and important. One being the promotion of the gluten free and casein free diet for children with Autism who also show signs of digestive or gut issues. There was a time when this would get you laughed out of a doctor’s office. These days, it’s generally accepted to be worth trying, often recommended by doctors, even. Same with her yeast-elimination or reduction plans and giving children cod liver oil.
These treatments are benign. You lose very little in trying them, and if they help, it’s a sustainable program that costs nothing more than the increased price of the specialty diet foods. McCarthy also notes that perhaps not all children should be vaccinated on the same schedule, and that a medical history of auto-immune issues be taken into consideration when scheduling vaccines. This seems highly reasonable, and many doctors already do this (including my own pediatrician).
But all of this reasonable advocacy is thrown out the window because McCarthy has led the way for parents refusing vaccines altogether, which has polarized this debate into “morons who don’t vaccinate” vs “doctors who don’t care if our kids get Autism”, and neither position helps our kids at all.
-I don’t need to go into the history of how otherwise rational parents started doubting the safety of vaccines, but if you truly don’t know, just Google Andrew Wakefield and learn about his fraudulent study of the MMR, how his co-authors disassociated themselves with the study, how his license was stripped as a result of the discovery of blatant lies and fabrications in the data.
But the true symbol of how this type of manipulated data can run rampant in our incredibly privileged society is McCarthy, not Wakefield (though he is primarily responsible). Not just how she managed to convince so many parents to listen to her instead of the doctors, but also how she’s refused to take responsibility for the fallout that’s ensued. As a celebrity, someone with a huge platform and spotlight directed at her, she should know that every word she says carries a lot of weight, oftentimes even more than people’s doctors.
But she’s managed to forget about the immunocompromised children, the babies, the elderly, those with HIV, those fighting cancer, those for whom the vaccine doesn’t work, and she’s decided to stand on a platform built upon lies and just keep shouting, despite mounting evidence that vaccines are generally safe.
Oh, but she has thought about the immunocompromised kids. In an interview with PBS.org, she said that she feels for kids fighting cancer and suggests that they are seated away from unvaccinated kids in school.
Now, I don’t know how much time Jenny McCarthy has spent around children in school, but merely requesting your child who is having chemo not be seated next to an unvaccinated child is absurd. First, the school legally cannot not tell you which children haven’t been vaccinated. So if your kid has a compromised immune system, you’re entirely dependent upon the other parents to tell you if their kid is a risk to yours.
Second, children don’t just sit in their seats all day and never get up. They move around the classroom, they touch shared objects, they go to other classrooms where they may have a different seating chart. They use the same bathrooms and sinks. They sit wherever they want in the cafeteria. They go to PE classes and run around and spray saliva and sweat all over one another. They pick their noses and wipe the boogers on the walls. I’ve seen this with my own eyes. They’re children, and as all parents will attest, they’re disgusting by nature. As a solution, seating an immunocompromised kid away from a kid whose parents decided not to vaccinate them is downright ridiculous.
This is also personal for me, as my friend Kyrsha is raising a powerful young son who is fighting cancer, and she’s been in this exact situation. She explained to me how she had to pull Logan from school because of unvaccinated children:
“My choices this year were pull him from school, after he had already missed the entire 3rd grade or take my chances let him be in school and pray he doesn’t get measles. It was awful. I met with the principal and she couldn’t give me the names of the kids that were unvaccinated. Why should we be punished? Cancer is not a choice. Not vaccinating is.”
Cancer is not a choice. Not vaccinating is.
McCarthy is doing something all parents are at risk of doing: Ignoring the harm we are doing to other children in favor of protecting our own. Think of the parents of the school bully who refuse to believe their precious child had anything to do with a bunch of other kids getting knocked down and having their milk money stolen. Not our child, they say. And they’ll continue to say it because they fear the consequence their own child has to face in order to protect all the others. In this case, McCarthy’s fierce and admirable mama-bear instinct is out of control. By virtue of the size of her platform and her incredible ability to command people’s attention, she has become the bully.
-These days, she’s trying to clean up her image. She says, “We are not against vaccines” but she has railed against the vaccine schedule for so long now, one has to doubt her sincerity. What did she think was going to happen when she went out and told a story of her son developing seizures right after the MMR vaccine? What did she think was going to happen when she talked about toxins in vaccines, without also noting that they have been proven generally safe in multiple studies?
Many medical professionals point out that one reason children’s Autism symptoms show up around the same time as their MMR vaccine is because the timing of the vaccine coincides with the first signs of Autism – between 12 and 24 months. This trend is true regardless of whether a child has been vaccinated or not.
What’s more, with all the attention on the MMR being connected to Autism, parents are probably more likely to be closely watching their child’s developmental milestones after an MMR shot, and if there were a problem developing, they’re more likely to notice it and report it to a doctor.
The fact is, the MMR does not cause Autism, and that has been proven many, many times, most recently in a study of over 95,000 children. This study found that even for children who had an older sibling with Autism (and therefore a higher risk of being diagnosed with the condition), the MMR vaccine did not increase their likelihood of developing Autism.
With all of this evidence, why won’t McCarthy change her tune about vaccines? I don’t know. But I know America fuels this and makes it possible. We just have too much good. Our children are too safe from the diseases that kill 1.5 million children worldwide annually. We also love to think we’re clever, even more clever than doctors and scientists, that we have some secret information nobody wants us to have. It makes us feel special.
We want to believe in the underdog, in the little guy; in this case, the former pin-up girl with the son who defied the odds and is recovering from Autism. We want to believe that Jenny McCarthy is David, and that the doctors, pharmaceutical companies and scientists are Goliath.
But let me be clear here: Jenny McCarthy is not David. Jenny McCarthy is a wealthy woman of privilege who was able to take her child to multiple specialists for diagnosis, and then seek out doctors who would confirm for her what she wanted to hear about vaccines (note, there are very, very few of them who will tell you not to vaccinate your kid, but they can be found).
She can afford incredibly effective and expensive intervention and education programs for her son, not to mention the expensive foods and supplements needed to help him recover. I’m grateful she had the resources to help her son, but she is not like you and me, working with our insurance companies and trying to get even the most simple tests covered. She is putting her son in hyperbaric oxygen chambers.
Jenny McCarthy is abusing her power, her wealth, and her fame to spread dangerous mis-information about vaccines and putting many other children at risk.
And America is letting her.
So this essay is for you, America. Jenny McCarthy isn’t one of the worst people in America, she’s just an average fame-obsessed celebrity who refuses to take responsibility for the power of her platform. The worst people in America? That’s us. We’ve allowed the issue of our children’s safety to become polarized to the point that parents listen to the loudest and most media-savvy voice in the debate, regardless of whether she has any science backing her.