The decision by ABC to name Jenny McCarthy as co-host of The View has prompted criticism from doctors and public health experts who consider her view on childhood immunizations to be dangerous.
At least one in four Americans said they were familiar with the former model and professional wrestling host's views on vaccines, in a 2008 USA TODAY/Gallup poll. Of those adults, 40 percent said McCarthy's claims about vaccine safety made them more likely to question whether children should receive vaccines.
McCarthy began campaigning against childhood immunizations in May 2007 when she announced that her son Evan, now 11, had been diagnosed two years earlier with autism, now known by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition as autism spectrum disorder. Although some doctors question that diagnosis, McCarthy has also described herself as an "indigo mom," referring to the pseudoscientific New Age theory popularized in the 1970s of the existence of children with paranormal abilities, including telepathy, and unusual capacity for empathy.
In an editorial blog post for The Boston Globe, Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician and medical communications director at Boston Children's Hospital, blasted the network's decision to provide the vaccine critic with a platform for her anti-vaccine views, even indirectly by promoting the personal brand of Jenny McCarthy.
"By choosing Jenny McCarthy to be a host on 'The View,' ABC made a decision that could end up costing lives--even worse, the lives of children," she wrote. "Jenny McCarthy believes that vaccines caused her son to be autistic. Never mind that it's not clear that he was actually autistic, none of the claims she has made about vaccines and autism are backed up by, um, any medical evidence."
'Father' Of Anti-Vaccine Movement Discredited
McCarthy, the new television host, follows a school of thought popularized by Andrew Wakefield, a British physician who lost his medical license after publishing a research paper in The Lancet in 1998 linking the administration of measles, mumps, and rubella (or MMR) vaccine with autism — an assertion that's since been discredited.
"But that doesn't stop Jenny McCarthy from making those claims very publicly," McCarthy wrote. "The fact that [Wakefield] has been discredited by the medical community and lost his license doesn't stop her from supporting him."
By 2004, 10 of Wakefield's 12 co-authors withdrew support for the conclusions after other researchers failed to replicate the data, and financial conflicts of interest were exposed by journalists in the United Kingdom. Following an investigation by the British General Medical Council, which found ethical problems with the study, The Lancet retracted the article, stating that some elements were found to be falsified.
Still, proponents of the theory that childhood immunizations, such as MMR, cause autism spectrum disorder continue to spread the word on television and online. McCarthy has become a hero to many in the right-wing libertarian community who believe government seeks to oppress people — or "sheeple" — by forcing compulsory vaccinations on an unwitting public. Alex Jones, a radio and television host whose YouTube channel "InfoWars" last year garnered more than 250 million views, is one of McCarthy's most prominent supporters (see video below).
"The idea that vaccines are a primary cause of autism is not as crackpot as some might wish," McCarthy told Jones in an interview. "Autism's 60-fold rise in 30 years matches a tripling of the US vaccine schedule.
"With so many kids with autism, the environment has to be to blame, and vaccines are an obvious culprit. Almost all kids get vaccines — injected toxins — very early in life, and our own government clearly acknowledges vaccines cause brain damage in certain vulnerable kids."
The Anti-Vaccine Body Count
However, critics of McCarthy's anti-vaccine crusade say the propaganda has hurt public health in the United States, asserting that 1,170 preventable deaths may be attributed to the movement, in contrast to the number of scientifically proven cases of vaccine-linked autism: zero.
On Tuesday, The New Yorker published an editorial criticizing ABC's decision to hire the activist. "McCarthy has repeatedly asserted that the rate of autism has grown rapidly alongside the number of vaccines children receive, which is not true," wrote journalist Michael Specter. "It is understandable that people would suspect vaccines are a cause of autism; parents often first notice developmental problems when their children are about eighteen months old, the same time they often receive several vaccinations. Causation and correlation are often confused, however, as many studies have demonstrated."
Specter further lambasted McCarthy's assertion that greater rates of childhood immunizations caused the increase in diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder among American children, noting too that rising sales or organic foods in the U.S. also correlates to increased autism spectrum disorder diagnoses.
"McCarthy now claims that her son was cured after being put on a gluten-free diet and subjected to chelation therapy, which extracts metals from the body," Specter wrote. "There has never been a verified scientific report that chelation therapy, a gluten-free diet, or anything else can cure autism."
Yet, McCarthy does not represent the first wave of "conspiracy moms" reacting to the terrifying prospect of diagnosis of one's child. In the 1950s, the "refrigerator mother theory" emerged as an explanation for autism without even the veneer of pseudoscience — lacking even one retracted peer-reviewed article in any major medical journal.
The theory held that children developed autistic behaviors in response to emotional frigidity from an uncaring, distant mother, essentially blaming the mother for one of her worst nightmares. Now, a mother has shifted the blame to another bogeyman — the government.
Below is a video from "Prison Planet TV," hosted by right-wing libertarian Alex Jones, on Jenny McCarthy's vaccine views: