Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All - Paul A. Offit (2010)
Chapter 9. The Mean Season
You know, you remove certain medications off shelves because they’re deemed unsafe. Why not vaccines?
—JENNY MCCARTHY ON LARRY KING LIVE, APRIL 3, 2009
The breakdown in herd immunity in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century hasn’t silenced anti-vaccine activists. Although Barbara Loe Fisher and her National Vaccine Information Center have been heard from less frequently, other groups have stepped in to take her place—specifically the Coalition for Vaccine Safety. Formed from a variety of groups that believe vaccines cause autism, this new breed of anti-vaccine activism has a dramatically different style: meaner, cruder, more strident, and less professional.
Jenny McCarthy was born on November 1, 1972, in Chicago, Illinois. She attended St. Turibius Grade School on Chicago’s south side and Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School. Later, she entered Southern Illinois University in Carbondale to study nursing. But her heart wasn’t in it; she wanted to be a model.
Her success was immediate. In October 1993, McCarthy was Playboy magazine’s Playmate of the Month; in 1994, she was Playmate of the Year. Her affiliation with Playboy didn’t end there. McCarthy hosted the Playboytelevision show Hot Rocks, which featured uncensored music videos, and the dating show Singled Out. In 1996, she landed a bit part in the comedy The Stupids. That same year, People magazine named her one of the fifty most beautiful people in the world.
McCarthy’s movie career wasn’t limited to The Stupids. In 1998, she had a small role in BASEketball and the following year in Diamonds , directed by John Asher, whom she married in September 1999. A few years later, on May 18, 2002, their only child, Evan, was born in Los Angeles. But all was not well. Following a chance encounter with a stranger, McCarthy knew that something was different about her son. “One night I reached over and grabbed my Archangel Oracle tarot cards and shuffled them and pulled out a card,” she wrote. “It was the same card I had picked over and over again the past few months. It was starting to drive me crazy. It said that I was to help teach the Indigo and Crystal children. [Later,] a woman approached Evan and me on the street and said, ‘Your son is a Crystal child,’ and then walked away. I remember thinking, ‘Okay, crazy lady,’ and then I stopped in my tracks. Holy shit, she just said ‘Crystal child,’ like on the tarot card.” McCarthy realized that she was an Indigo adult and Evan a Crystal child. Although Evan would soon be diagnosed with autism, McCarthy took heart in the fact that Crystal children were often mislabeled as autistic. According to Doreen Virtue, author of The Care and Feeding of Indigo Children, “Crystal Children don’t warrant a label of autism! They aren’t autistic, they’re AWE-tistic.”
In 2005, McCarthy changed her mind. She abandoned her tarot-card predictions and embraced the notion that her son was autistic and that vaccines were responsible. On September 18, 2007, in front of millions of viewers on Oprah, she described the moment that changed her life: “Right before my son got the MMR shot I said to the doctor, ‘I have a very bad feeling about this shot. This is the autism shot, isn’t it?’ And he said, ‘No! That is ridiculous. It is a mother’s desperate attempt to blame something on autism.’ And he swore at me. And then the nurse gave him that shot. And I remember going, ‘Oh, God, no!’ And soon thereafter I noticed a change. The soul was gone from his eyes.” By 2007, researchers had published several studies showing that MMR didn’t cause autism; McCarthy was unconvinced. “My science is Evan, and he’s at home,” she said. “That’s my science.”
Jenny McCarthy with then husband John Asher at a party at the Playboy mansion. McCarthy has become America’s most-recognized anti-vaccine activist. (Courtesy of Kenneth Johansson/Corbis.)
Using the fame of her Playboy and movie career, McCarthy soon became America’s most recognized anti-vaccine crusader.
In many ways, Jenny McCarthy and Barbara Loe Fisher are similar. Both dramatize their personal stories in vivid, heart-wrenching terms. Where Fisher describes her son’s learning disabilities as brain damage, McCarthy likens certain symptoms of her son’s autism to death. When asked during an interview on CNN whether her campaign against vaccines could result in children dying from preventable infections, McCarthy said, “People are also dying from vaccination. Evan, my Evan, my son died in front of me for two minutes.” McCarthy also shares Fisher’s disdain for public health officials and pharmaceutical companies. “I think they need to wake up and stop hurting our kids,” she said. Finally, both Fisher and McCarthy continually reshape their messages to fit the style of the time. Fisher switched from a campaign against pertussis vaccine to one against all vaccines, claiming they caused chronic diseases. McCarthy, supported by environmental activists like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Don and Deirdre Imus, later decided that her son’s autism wasn’t caused by MMR. It was caused by vaccine toxins—specifically, mercury, aluminum, and anti-freeze. (McCarthy later undercut her stop-injecting-toxins-into-our-bodies message by saying, “I love Botox. I absolutely love it. I get it minimally, so I can still move my face. But I really do think it’s a savior.” Made by the bacterium that causes botulism, botulinum toxin [Botox] is one of the world’s most powerful toxins.)
Although Jenny McCarthy and Barbara Loe Fisher are alike in several ways, their differences are striking.
Unlike Fisher, McCarthy often resorts to profanity. On April 1, 2009, Jeffrey Kluger, a veteran scientific correspondent, interviewed McCarthy for Time magazine. Kluger, who had recently written a popular book about the polio vaccine, asked, “What about the polio clusters in unvaccinated communities like the Amish in the United States? What about the 2004 outbreak that swept across Africa and Southeast Asia after a single province in northern Nigeria banned vaccines?” McCarthy replied, “I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.” Kluger also asked McCarthy about the measles vaccine. “And yet in many cases, vaccines have effectively eliminated diseases,” he said. “Measles is among the top five killers in the world of children under five years old, yet it kills virtually no one in the United States thanks to vaccines.” McCarthy replied, “If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the fucking measles.”
Unlike Fisher, McCarthy is comfortable dispensing medical advice. In a fifteen-minute video designed for parents, she explains what causes autism and how to treat it: “Autism is a toxic overload. And one of the things I want you to write down and then put on your refrigerator are just five things: food, supplementation, detox, medicines, and positive thinking.” McCarthy starts with food, explaining that children should avoid gluten (wheat, barley, or rye) and casein (dairy products). “When you can’t break it down,” she says, “they get stoned, which accounts for their moods, their spaciness, their addiction for things. The mom says he just has to have his twelve cups of milk a day; he just has to have his mac and cheese. Well, no kidding. You know, I really liked my marijuana in college, too. When they want that milk and they want that wheat, you’re giving them a joint.”
Although both McCarthy and Fisher openly despise pharmaceutical companies, McCarthy promotes their products. On her video describing how to treat autism, McCarthy says, “Some of our kids can’t absorb the nutrients that we give them so they have to be supplemented. Some of the multi-vitamins that I like are Super Nu-Thera® that can be found at Kirkman Laboratories. [McCarthy displays a picture of Super Nu-Thera® followed by Kirkman’s Web site.] Culturelle® you can find at any pharmacy; it’s over-the-counter. ThreeLac® is one of my favorites because it’s a probiotic that also eats yeast and pretty much recovered Evan. Also found at Kirkman. If you’re unsure about dosage, ask your pediatrician; but most of the time they don’t know anything. So I would say ask someone at Kirkman.” At the end of the video, McCarthy promotes another pharmaceutical company with the statement, “For more information about vitamins visit www.kartnerhealth.com.” According to McCarthy’s logic, then, those who promote vaccines are evil because they’re fronting for products that gross $17 billion a year; while those who promote supplements are virtuous because they’re fronting for products—almost all of which are of unproved efficacy—that gross $80 billion a year.
Perhaps the most important difference between Jenny McCarthy and Barbara Loe Fisher is their backers. Both are heartily endorsed by personal-injury lawyers with much to gain from the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program; but McCarthy, not Fisher, is supported by a wealthy financier. On April 3, 2009, she appeared on Larry King Live. At the end of her segment, King asked, “Jenny, you have a Web site. What is it?” Although McCarthy has her own Web site, she didn’t mention it. “Generationrescue.org,” she said. “You can go there for more information.”
Generation Rescue was started by a venture capitalist named J. B. Handley, who believes his son’s autism was caused by thimerosal in vaccines. Like McCarthy, Handley has a cure: chelation, a potentially dangerous therapy of unproved efficacy that helps rid the body of heavy metals like mercury and lead. (In 2005, a five-year-old autistic boy died during chelation in suburban Pittsburgh.) To proselytize the miracle of chelation, Handley recruited a group of parents to spread the word, calling them Rescue Angels. Generation Rescue’s mission is, in part, to “gather the information that currently exists about mercury toxicity and publicize the truth so parents can make the best decision to help their children heal.” The key word in Generation Rescue’s mission statement is publicize. On June 8, 2005, Handley’s organization took out a full-page ad in the New York Times. At the top of the page, in bold, black type, the ad declared, “MERCURY POISONING AND AUTISM: IT ISN’T JUST A COINCIDENCE.” On April 6, 2006, Handley’s organization took out another full-page ad, this time in USA Today. Written in letters two inches high, the ad angrily stated, “IF YOU CAUSED A 6,000% INCREASE IN AUTISM WOULDN’T YOU TRY TO COVER IT UP, TOO? IT’S TIME FOR THE CDC TO COME CLEAN WITH THE AMERICAN PUBLIC.” On February 25, 2009, Generation Rescue took out yet another full-page ad in USA Today. This time Handley wanted to alert the public about Bailey Banks, a boy whose parents had claimed that vaccines had caused his autism. “A LITTLE BOY SHOULDN’T HAVE TO TAKE ON AN ENTIRE INDUSTRY ALONE. IT’S TIME THE GOVERNMENT TOLD THE TRUTH ABOUT CHILDHOOD VACCINES.” Each of these ads costs as much as $180,000. Generation Rescue is an advertising arm of the anti-vaccine movement.
Apparently McCarthy’s stance against vaccines impressed Handley. So, in 2009, “Generation Rescue” became “Jenny McCarthy’s Autism Organization—Generation Rescue,” complete with pictures of and messages from McCarthy.
Handley brought something to the anti-vaccine movement that hadn’t been seen before: personal intimidation. He didn’t just rail against journalists or professional societies or vaccine advocates; he sued them or sent them hate-filled emails or maintained Web sites to vilify them or screamed at them on national television. On CBS’s daytime program The Doctors, Handley, appearing with McCarthy, attacked the show’s host, Dr. Travis Stork. Stork was convinced by studies that had exonerated vaccines as a cause of autism; Handley wasn’t:
STORK: In my opinion—and this is just me wanting to have an open debate about this—vaccines are really the one thing we have looked at as causing autism.
HANDLEY: That is completely bogus! That is such a bogus statement! STORK: No, that’s ...
HANDLEY: How many vaccines have they looked at in these studies?! How many?! What’s the answer?! I’m so sick of doctors who don’t read the studies, who don’t know the details sitting here telling parents and reassuring them that vaccines don’t cause autism. It’s irresponsible.
Stork was angry that Handley had chosen to characterize doctors as uncaring and falsely reassuring.
STORK: And this is the biggest problem, and the reason that doctors in this country are frustrated.
HANDLEY: Read the science!
STORK: All you’re doing is you’re antagonizing a medical community that wants to help these kids. OK?
HANDLEY: You haven’t done the research.
STORK: You’re antagonizing me. Why would you do that?
HANDLEY: Because my son was ...
J. B. Handley takes on Dr. Travis Stork on an episode of The Doctors, May 6, 2009. (Courtesy of The Doctors, Stage 29 Productions, and CBS Television Distributions.)
STORK: OK! Everyone wants to blame someone, right? What we’re trying to figure out here is how to help kids. But all you do when you yell at me on my stage, all you do is anger me.
HANDLEY: I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, but you don’t know the details.
STORK: I asked you to defend your stance, and all you did was attack me as an individual. Why would I want to listen to you when you do that to me?
On an anti-vaccine Web site, Handley boasted about his ability to take on doctors. “I’m not intimidated by any of these jokers,” he wrote. “Their degrees mean zippo to me, because I knew plenty of knuckleheads in college who went on to be doctors, and they’re still knuckleheads.”
Later in The Doctors program Stork revealed how, on the strength of McCarthy’s star power, she had rigged the show.
MCCARTHY: Go call the AAP [American Academy of Pediatrics] and see if they’ll sit down with us and they’ll say, ‘No, tell them to write a letter.’
STORK: Let me just say this openly to everyone. You know, we wanted to have someone from the AAP here today, but you refused to allow them to come. So if you want to engage them in a debate, they would have been here.
Following the show, David Tayloe, a North Carolina pediatrician and president of the AAP, wrote to Lisa Williams, producer of The Doctors.
Dear Ms. Williams,
Once again, Jenny McCarthy has struck a blow to public health, and “The Doctors” have given her the loudspeaker. I was disappointed with the May 6 episode featuring Ms. McCarthy and her associates from the anti-vaccine group Generation Rescue.
True ... Dr. Travis Stork revealed Ms. McCarthy’s hypocrisy over her unfounded claims that the American Academy of Pediatrics has refused to sit down with her. In fact, she is the one who refused to engage the AAP in an honest dialogue on the show. That only begs the question: Why allow her this platform at all? I do not understand why you granted a celebrity the power to veto a guest who is actually prepared to refute her unscientific claims. The casual viewer would not have known that the deck was stacked; every guest, including J. B. Handley ... plays a prominent role in Generation Rescue. This is a small, vocal minority. But a young parent watching your show would get the mistaken impression they represent the consensus on vaccines. This misinformation is costly. Unimmunized children are dying of vaccine preventable diseases in this country....
I fear you let drama and ratings trump sound medical advice. Sincerely,
David T. Tayloe, Jr., M.D.
President, American Academy of Pediatrics
Handley appears to embrace the legal aphorism “If the law is on your side, argue the law; if the facts are on your side, argue the facts; if neither is on your side, attack the witness.” The scientific evidence against him, Handley chose ad hominem attacks, arguably the lowest form of debate. His confrontation with Travis Stork was one of many:
• On January 31, 2008, Nancy Minshew, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pittsburgh and director of a Center of Excellence in Autism of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), confronted anti-vaccine activists. In an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette titled “Pitt Expert Goes Public to Counter Fallacy on Autism,” Minshew said, “The weight of the evidence is so great that I don’t think there is any room for dispute. I think the issue is done.” Handley, who had become aware of an email exchange between Minshew and a parent of a child with autism, threatened to post it on an anti-vaccine Web site. Minshew was upset, writing, “Mr. Handley, none of you have permission to share emails that I have sent to you as individuals. Unlike the newspaper, which was public, private emails to individuals sent confidentially are not for public quotation.” Handley responded immediately. “Says who?” he wrote. “And tough shit.”
• In an interview with Cookie magazine in their August 2008 issue, actress Amanda Peet, who starred in 2012, A Lot Like Love, Martian Child, Something’s Gotta Give, Syriana, The Whole Ten Yards, and X-Files, talked about the importance of vaccines. Peet was worried about the growing number of unvaccinated children in southern California; worried about how it might affect her young daughter. “I was shocked at the amount of misinformation [about vaccines] floating around,” she said, “particularly in Hollywood.” Again, Handley resorted to threats: “Ms. Peet, I have a quick message for you: you have no idea who you are messing with.”
• On August 4, 2008, Handley attacked Every Child by Two (ECBT), a nonprofit organization founded by Betty Bumpers and Rosalynn Carter. Questioning their funding sources, Handley wrote, “By non-profit standards, ECBT is a rat-shit organization.”
• On September 10, 2008, after yet another study had found no evidence that MMR caused autism, Geri Dawson, chief science officer for the advocacy organization Autism Speaks, sent out a press release reassuring parents about the safety of the vaccine. Handley’s response was personal: “Geri Dawson is either a blithering idiot or she is a corrupt partisan hack who so desperately wants the autism-vaccine thing to just die so she can get back to work chasing her genetic-psychological theories on autism that she will happily go along with the mainstream spin on a stupid little study.”
• On October 30, 2008, after NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman appeared on The Today Show supporting the science showing no link between vaccines and autism, Handley called her “NBC’s pharma-whore in residence.”
• On December 15, 2008, in a blog entry titled “Some New York Times Reporters Are Just Ignorant,” Handley attacked Gardiner Harris, who had written an article exonerating vaccines as a cause of autism. Handley wrote, “There’s a reporter named Gardiner Harris who writes for the New York Times. I’ve probably talked to a hundred or so reporters in my time and he is unquestionably the biggest jackass I have ever encountered.”
• In November 2009, a freelance reporter named Amy Wallace wrote an article for Wired magazine titled “An Epidemic of Fear.” The cover of Wired featured an infant staring out from behind the word FEAR in three-inch high letters; the subheading read, “Vaccines don’t cause autism. But some panicked parents are skipping their baby shots. Why that bad decision endangers us all.” As he had done with Nancy Snyderman, Handley demeaned Wallace, a single mother living in southern California, with a sexual reference, implying that she had been intellectually raped using a date-rape drug. After Wallace described his comments on National Public Radio, Handley called her a “cry baby.” Wallace lamented “the way people like Handley use gender and sexuality as weapons to bully their opponents,” arguing that “the debate needs to be civil. That’s part of what I’ve been trying to participate in—a civil discussion of these issues.”
• On January 12, 2010, Handley went after those he believed were most responsible for causing autism—pediatricians: “If a doctor sticks six vaccines into a child while the child is taking antibiotics for an ear infection and Tylenol for a cold, he’s not a doctor, he’s a criminal, and should be hauled into jail on the spot for assault and battery. If the child also happens to have eczema, long-term diarrhea, and has missed a milestone or two, perhaps the charges should be attempted murder.”
Handley’s appearance on entertainment television didn’t end with The Doctors. On April 3, 2009, Handley, appearing on Larry King Live, said, “They [the AAP] rubber stamp every vaccine on the schedule. Dr. [Margaret] Fisher [representing the AAP on the show] never answered why so few companies have picked up varicella, flu, rotavirus. Meantime, AAP rubber stamps every vaccine, like Gardasil [human papillomavirus vaccine], which is damaging teenaged girls right now; which will likely be pulled from the market very soon.” Handley had mischaracterized the American Academy of Pediatrics, failing to account for the enormous amount of work done by the AAP’s Committee on Infectious Diseases before recommending vaccines. Further, he implied that few companies manufactured vaccines against varicella (chickenpox), influenza, or rotavirus because they weren’t safe or effective. But that’s not the reason; only a few companies make vaccines because vaccines, compared with drugs, are enormously expensive to test and manufacture. Patricia Danzon, an economics professor at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, has publicly expressed surprise that more than one company makes any vaccine—given that they’re used only once or a few times in a lifetime. But Handley’s most outrageous comment was that Gardasil was not only dangerous (a contention refuted by careful study) but also about to be pulled from the market. This was clearly untrue. Given that Gardasil prevents the only known cause of cervical cancer—and given that at least some CNN viewers, believing Gardasil was about to be withdrawn, might have chosen not to give the vaccine to their daughters—Handley’s statement tested the bounds of free speech. Citizens of the United States are not allowed to shout “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater because it puts lives at risk. Arguably, Handley’s baldly inaccurate statement about Gardasil’s imminent withdrawal might have caused some parents to withhold the vaccine for their daughters, putting them at needless risk of cervical cancer.
Handley’s disregard for established science didn’t end with his comments about Gardasil. On the May 6, 2009, episode of The Doctors, he said, “As mad as we are—and we are mad and frustrated that we aren’t heard—we want to find common ground. We don’t want all these deadly childhood diseases to return, either. One of the recommendations that we’ve made to parents is go back to the 1989 schedule, before it became—in our opinion—overly commercialized.” Handley was asking to go back to a time when, every year, pneumococcus caused tens of thousands of cases of pneumonia and thousands of cases of meningitis, killing about two hundred children; when hepatitis B virus infected about sixteen thousand young children; when rotavirus caused seventy thousand babies to become so dehydrated that they had to be hospitalized; and when Hib caused twenty thousand children to suffer bloodstream infections, pneumonia, epiglottitis, or meningitis. Handley’s advice to return to a decade when hundreds of thousands of children were harmed by what are now preventable infections ranks as one of the most irresponsible, ill-informed statements ever made by an antivaccine activist.
Handley’s notion of a gentler, better time before vaccines wasn’t new. One month earlier he had made a similar suggestion. During his April 2009 appearance on Larry King Live, Handley, referring to the notion that babies were getting too many vaccines too soon, said, “Larry, we have no idea what the combination risk of our vaccine schedule looks like. At the two-month visit, a child gets six vaccines in under fifteen minutes. The only way to test that properly would be to have a group of kids who get all six and a group of kids who got none and see what happens. They don’t do that testing. They have no idea.” Handley was asking for a study of vaccinated and unvaccinated children. One result is certain: given recent outbreaks of Hib, measles, mumps, and pertussis, unvaccinated children would suffer and possibly die from preventable infections. It would be, of course, an entirely unethical experiment. No investigator could prospectively study children who are denied a potentially lifesaving medical product. And no university’s or hospital’s institutional review board worth its salt would ever approve such a study. Handley’s proposal harkens back to a dark time in our history when—between 1932 and 1972—investigators prospectively studied four hundred African-American men from one of the poorest counties in Alabama to see what would happen if their syphilis went untreated. It was called the Tuskegee Study. Withholding antibiotics that could have cured them, it was probably the most unethical medical experiment ever performed in America.
Another obvious difference between Jenny McCarthy and Barbara Loe Fisher is that McCarthy is a celebrity. It’s her celebrity that has landed her on shows like Oprah and Larry King Live. And it’s her celebrity that has enabled her to determine the guest list. McCarthy isn’t the first person to use fame to influence the public about vaccines. In the 1950s, the March of Dimes promoted polio vaccines using singers Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra, comedians Jack Benny and Lucille Ball, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his puppet Charlie McCarthy, and actors Clayton Moore (the Lone Ranger), Mary Pickford (America’s sweetheart), and Mickey Rooney; even Mickey Mouse participated (“Hi ho, hi ho, we’ll lick that polio”). The tradition is still alive. In addition to Amanda Peet, actors such as Keri Russell (Waitress, August Rush) and Jennifer Garner (Juno, 13 Going on 30) have spoken on behalf of vaccines. So has Heisman trophy winner Archie Griffin. But unlike in the 1950s, many celebrities today use their fame to scare the public. In addition to McCarthy, Jessica Alba, Cindy Crawford, Matthew McConaughey, Doug Flutie, and Aidan Quinn have all said that vaccines are unsafe. But no actor has joined the fray more than Jim Carrey. Unlike McCarthy, Carrey is recognized by most Americans for his work in the popular comedies Liar, Liar; Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; and Dumb and Dumber as well as for his serious roles in The Truman Show and The Majestic. People know Jim Carrey as a warm and funny man; they trust him. So when Carrey started to date Jenny McCarthy, and to share her anti-vaccine passion, her star power and the impact of her message increased dramatically.
Jim Carrey exhorts crowd at an anti-vaccine rally in front of the Capitol, June 4, 2008. (Courtesy of Getty Images.)
McCarthy and Carrey were a compatible anti-vaccine couple, sharing the notion that vaccines are a conspiracy run by pharmaceutical companies. On April 3, 2009, on Larry King Live, Carrey said, “The AAP is financed by drug companies. Medical schools are financed by drug companies.” Carrey also doesn’t trust public health agencies. “I don’t think people that are charged with the public health any longer have our best interests at heart all the time,” he said. “Parents have to make their own decisions: educated decisions.” Unfortunately, like McCarthy and J. B. Handley, Carrey does little to educate them. On the same segment of Larry King Live, Handley noted that “twenty-seven countries chose not to vaccinate for the chickenpox.” Carrey knew why. “That vaccine doesn’t work,” he said.
Handley’s implication that chickenpox is unimportant and Carrey’s statement that the vaccine doesn’t work are inconsistent with the evidence. The chickenpox vaccine was first licensed and used in the United States in 1995. Although many people think of chickenpox as a benign disease—a simple rite of childhood passage—it isn’t; every year chickenpox causes children to be hospitalized and to die. The virus, which disrupts the skin with painful blisters, allows entrance of bacteria like Streptococcus pyogenes. Dubbed “flesh-eating bacteria” by the press, streptococcus causes serious and occasionally fatal diseases like necrotizing fasciitis (a deep-seated infection that dissects rapidly through muscles, necessitating emergency surgery) and pyomyositis (in which muscles liquefy from massive inflammation). The virus can also travel to the lungs causing pneumonia and to the brain causing encephalitis. Worst of all: you never get rid of chickenpox. Even after people recover from the infection, the virus lives silently in nerve roots, occasionally reawakening later in life causing shingles, one of medicine’s most debilitating diseases. Shingles is so painful that it has at times led to suicide. And shingles doesn’t only affect the skin; sometimes when the virus reawakens it causes strokes, resulting in permanent paralysis. Chickenpox is a disease worth preventing. And, thanks to the chickenpox vaccine, American children are now much less likely to catch it. Since the vaccine was released, twenty studies—performed between 1997 and 2006—have evaluated whether the vaccine works. Every one of them found that it did. Not surprisingly, the number of children with chickenpox—once totaling about four million a year—has declined dramatically. But Jim Carrey never mentioned these data. Rather, he declared to several million people on national television that the vaccine didn’t work—a statement that was entirely false and went completely unchallenged.
In October 2009, during the swine flu (H1N1) epidemic, another celebrity threw his hat into the ring: Bill Maher, the popular host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. For those who followed him on Twitter, Maher advised that getting a vaccine to prevent swine flu was for “idiots.” On his television show, he debated Bill Frist, a heart surgeon and former Senate majority leader from Tennessee.
MAHER: Why would you let them [doctors] be the ones to stick a disease into your arm? I would never get a swine flu vaccine or any vaccine. I don’t trust the government, especially with my health.
FRIST: On the swine flu, I know you really believe that. And let me just ...
MAHER: You say that like I’m a crazy person.
Frist told the story of a healthy thirty-year-old man who had died of swine flu in his (Frist’s) hospital. Maher didn’t buy it.
MAHER: This is not a serious flu. Let’s be honest. There must be something more to this. I cannot believe that a perfectly healthy person died of this swine flu. That person was not perfectly healthy. Western medicine misses a lot.
Frist told Maher about two recent publications in the New England Journal of Medicine describing the high risk of fatal influenza in pregnant women.
FRIST: I know you don’t believe this, but I’m telling you the facts. Because if you send a signal out telling pregnant women not to get this vaccine ...
MAHER: I do.
FRIST: Well, you’re wrong. I’m serious.
One month later, Maher wrote an article for the Huffington Post titled “Vaccination: A Conversation Worth Having.” In it, he sounded many classic anti-vaccine themes: for example, that vaccines contain dangerous additives (“the formaldehyde, the insect repellent, the mercury”), that diseases prevented by vaccines were disappearing anyway (“polio had diminished by over 50 percent in the thirty years before the vaccine”), and that common belief is common wisdom (“sixty-five percent of the French people don’t want [the flu vaccine]. Are they all crazy too?”). Then Maher gave his readers the source of his information: “Someone who speaks eloquently about this is Barbara Loe Fisher, founder of the National Vaccine Information Center. I find her extremely credible, as I do Dr. Russell Blaylock, Dr. Jay Gordon, and many others. But I shouldn’t have even mentioned them because I don’t want to be ‘The Vaccine Guy’!! Look it up yourself and stop asking me about it. I’m already ‘The Religion Guy,’ and that’s enough work!”
Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, declared that the novel H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine was for “idiots.” (Courtesy of Kabik/ Retna Ltd./Corbis.)
When Maher called himself “The Religion Guy,” he was referring to his 2008 movie, Religulous (presumably a contraction of the words religion and ridiculous). Maher took on religion, claiming that religious beliefs weren’t supported by scientific evidence. At the beginning of the movie he asked, “Why is believing something without evidence good?” Maher noted that many scientists were either atheists or agnostics. He was likening himself to them. But that’s where the similarity ended.
Maher argued that influenza vaccine was equivalent to “sticking a disease into your arm.” Following his criticism, Maher received letters from doctors explaining how the influenza vaccine was made and how it works—and why it wasn’t like “sticking a disease into your arm.” But Maher didn’t need their help. “I read Microbe Hunters when I was eight,” he wrote. (Microbe Hunters was written twenty years before the invention of the first influenza vaccine.)
Maher’s Huffington Post entry also contained several inaccuracies. He argued that polio was on the decline before the vaccine. In fact, in 1943, ten thousand Americans suffered polio; in 1948, twenty-seven thousand; and in 1952, three years before Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, fifty-nine thousand. Maher claimed that the swine flu epidemic was overblown, again unsupported by the facts. Between April 2009, when swine flu entered the United States, and November 2009, when Maher made the claim, forty-seven million Americans had been infected, more than two hundred thousand had been hospitalized, and ten thousand had died, a thousand of whom were children. Finally, Maher wrote that pregnant women didn’t need the influenza vaccine—his most dangerous advice. Indeed, pregnant women were seven times more likely to have been hospitalized with swine flu than women of the same age who weren’t pregnant.
Maher argued that if most French citizens didn’t believe that a swine flu vaccine was necessary, then it must not be necessary. Ironically, in Religulous, he didn’t extend the same courtesy to those who believe in God. “So, even if a billion people believe something,” he said, “it can still be ridiculous.”
Finally, when Maher wanted to educate himself about vaccines he called on Barbara Loe Fisher (a media-relations expert), Russell Blaylock (a neurosurgeon), and Jay Gordon (an anti-vaccine pediatrician). Not one of his advisors is an expert in immunology, virology, bacteriology, epidemiology, or toxicology. And not one has ever published a single study on the science of vaccines. Whereas Maher argued that science refuted much of what was stated in biblical teachings, he abandoned science when talking about vaccines.
Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and Bill Maher have used their celebrity to misinform the public about vaccines, putting children at unnecessary risk. Unfortunately, the phenomenon isn’t new. In the 1950s, when epidemiological studies clearly showed that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer, Edward R. Murrow (a broadcast journalist for CBS News) and Arthur Godfrey (a radio and television personality) used their celebrity to argue that the science was contradictory. Both Murrow and Godfrey died of lung cancer.
Although Barbara Loe Fisher doesn’t have a medical or scientific background—and has been unable to provide a biological underpinning for her contention that vaccines cause chronic diseases—the media have viewed her as a credible source of information. She has spoken before congressional subcommittees, served on an FDA vaccine advisory panel, and appeared on well-respected news programs such as ABC’s World News Tonight. Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, J. B. Handley, and Bill Maher, on the other hand, are seen as less reliable, less informed, and less credible by the media. Their voices are heard on anti-vaccine blogs and entertainment television, not at congressional hearings or federal advisory committees. Considered great entertainment, if not somewhat cartoonish, these new antivaccine activists have been relatively marginalized. And things would have stayed that way had not two people stepped forward from an unexpected place—two people no one predicted would have ended up on the other side.
Dr. Bernadine Healy was the director of the National Institutes of Health—the single most respected research organization in the United States—during President George H. W. Bush’s administration. Although most people have never heard of her, they have certainly heard of NIH. And every time Healy speaks out against vaccines, the appellation “former director of NIH” follows. On May 12, 2008, Sharyl Attkisson interviewed Healy on CBS Evening News. Calm, mature, and seemingly well reasoned, Healy did much to discredit those with whom she had previously worked. “This is the time when we do have the opportunity to understand whether or not there are susceptible children [to autism],” she began, “perhaps genetically, perhaps they have a metabolic issue, mitochondrial disorder, immunologic issue, that makes them more susceptible to vaccines. And I think we have the tools today that we didn’t have ten years ago, that we didn’t have twenty years ago, to try and tease that out.” Healy was right that the past decade had witnessed an explosion in techniques likely to reveal the cause or causes of autism. But she was wrong in claiming they hadn’t been used. Quite the opposite. During the past decade, several investigators, using the sophisticated techniques mentioned by Healy, have found several genetic defects in children with autism. Others have found structural differences in the brains of autistic children—differences likely to occur in the womb, not following vaccines.
In her interview with Sharyl Attkisson, Healy continued her attack against vaccines, arguing that children might be susceptible “to a component of vaccines, like mercury. I think the government or certain public health officials in the government have been too quick to dismiss the concerns of these families without studying the population that got sick. We should never shy away from science.” Healy’s rant against public health officials ignored several facts. For one thing, at the time of the CBS Evening News interview, the preservative that contained mercury (thimerosal) had been removed from all vaccines given to young infants. For another, far from being unwilling to study whether parents’ concerns about mercury were real, public health officials and academic investigators had performed many studies to determine whether mercury in vaccines caused autism or other problems. It didn’t. And those studies cost tens of millions of dollars to perform.
Healy concluded her interview by ignoring recent history: “I do not believe that if we identify a particular risk factor that the public would lose faith in vaccines. I think people understand a polio epidemic. I think they understand a measles epidemic. I think they understand congenital rubella. I think they understand diphtheria. Nobody’s going to turn their backs on vaccines. I don’t believe the truth ever scares people.” But some people have turned their backs on vaccines. They’ve turned their backs on MMR vaccine to the point of measles and mumps epidemics. And they’ve turned their back on Hib vaccine at the cost of their children’s lives. The problem isn’t that public health officials haven’t performed studies or tried to educate the press and public. The problem is that certain people in the media, such as Sharyl Attkisson, Oprah Winfrey, and Larry King, have dismissed these studies, choosing instead to scare the public, presumably to enhance the entertainment value of their shows.
Bernadine Healy’s appearances on CBS Evening News, her articles in U.S. News and World Report (where she is an editor), and her statements in newspapers and magazines have had an effect. But Healy’s impact pales in comparison to that of a pediatrician from southern California—a pediatrician who has written a book about vaccines that has influenced a nation.