Health, family, and celebrity “experts”

Jenny McCarthy–actress, author, and anti-vaccine activist–is set to start her gig as co-host of ABC’s The View in September. It raises some interesting questions: Does visibility lead to credibility? Who gets to be considered a “reliable source”? And what are our responsibilities as adults and/or parents in all of this?

I am not a great person to talk about autism. So, this article is not about autism, even though I’m talking about Jenny McCarthy and her new role on The View this fall. Rather, I wanted to open up a discussion about professionals and advice, health manners, and the knowable of the universe. After all, what’s a fortnightly column for, if not unravelling the mysteries of the cosmos?

It all seems fairly simple, really. You follow people who present the best evidence, with the best credentials (or, possibly, your mom). The more qualified the individual, the more reliable the information. Except this is the real world and things are a lot more murky than that. And sometimes your mom is wrong.

Jenny McCarthy landing a role on The View might make some think that this boosts her credibility. In 2009, The View reported 4.2 million viewers,1 so this is not a low-profile appointment. McCarthy has supported Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who reported a possible link between MMR vaccines and autism. However, his paper was found to be fraudulent. He falsified data, and as a result, he is no longer licensed in the UK or the US. Yet for those not keeping score or digging deeper, the 1998 paper that Wakefield co-authored could be touted as common knowledge. In this case, when someone like celebrity activist and Dr. Mom Jenny McCarthy continues to support this formerly licensed practitioner, saying “the work of Dr. Wakefield and his colleagues deserves to be shared with the world to further, rather than censor, scientific progress.” It’s easy to gloss over the fact that he’s been discredited, because she repeatedly gets rewarded for spreading her anti-vaccine opinion. Wakefield continues to be supported despite the falsified study, as “when a study is retracted, ‘it can be hard to make its effects go away,’ says Sheldon Tobe, a kidney-disease specialist at the University of Toronto.”

Most people already have their opinions surrounding McCarthy set; she’s either a saint or a sinner, a genius or a goon. The court’s ruling that “that vaccines do not cause autism” may make little difference for a portion of the general public. But shouldn’t it make a difference to the people who help spread information? With falsified studies in her quiver of information, still McCarthy has landed a spot on The View.

Of course, McCarthy isn’t the only celebrity to use said celebrity status to speak to the masses about health. Gwyneth Paltrow’s new cookbook It’s All Good is based on the premise of an elimination diet suggested to her by her doctor, and also turns out to be privileged and expensive to carry out exactly as written. $10/dozen duck eggs for omelets?

Why can’t our celebrities be our celebrities, our medical professionals be our medical professionals, and simply draw the lines in the sand? And what are our responsibilities as adults and/or parents in all of this?

With some things, like following Paltrow’s cookbook advice, the ring of people affected is fairly small. They would consist primarily of the people eating the food and duck farmers who would be very happy for the uptick in business. But the impact is pretty low. On the other side of the coin though, the people affected by the choice to vaccinate or not is quite large, and it extends far outside of the home of the child who is or is not vaccinated. And it matters.

You know that annoying-scary ad that always runs on (and probably elsewhere)? The one that goes “You think the safest place in the world for your baby is wrapped in your arms…It can also be one of the most dangerous, because parents most often spread Pertussis, whooping cough, and it’s potentially fatal to infants.” The commercial is one I often turn off, but I have to acknowledge, that despite its super-scariness, they may be onto something. Simply put, “whooping cough can cause pneumonia, seizures, brain damage, and death.” It is not simply a bad cough. Pertussis is considered an epidemic, and the vaccines that people are (or are not) getting play a role, according to the Center for Disease Control. To be clear, they are not the sole source of the epidemic, but they are acknowledged as being a risk:

Q: I’ve heard about parents refusing to get their children vaccinated and travelers to the U.S. spreading disease; are they to blame for pertussis outbreaks?

A: Even though children who haven’t received DTaP vaccines are at least 8 times more likely to get pertussis than children who received all 5 recommended doses of DTaP, they are not the driving force behind the large scale outbreaks or epidemics. However, their parents are putting them at greater risk of getting a serious pertussis infection and then possibly spreading it to other family or community members.

We often see people blaming pertussis outbreaks on people coming to the US from other countries. This is not the case. Pertussis was never eliminated from the US like measles or polio, so there’s always the chance for it to get into a community. Plus, every country vaccinates against pertussis.

Pertussis isn’t the only epidemic that’s re-emerged. The CDC notes that while measles were “declared eliminated from the United States in 2000” there are still a number of cases per year that occur (an average of 60). However, in 2011 there were 222 reported cases. Forty percent of those were from people who traveled internationally and brought the disease back from countries that have not eliminated the disease. As our world feels smaller and smaller as international travel becomes easier and easier, it’s alarming to remember that, in the words of the CDC, “Anyone who is not protected against measles is at risk of getting infected when they travel internationally. They can bring measles to the United States and infect others. Unvaccinated people put themselves and others at risk for measles and its serious complications.”

Gwyneth Paltrow’s $10/dozen duck eggs are trivial, and she can go on about them until the cows come home without hurting too many people (wallets, maybe), but Jenny McCarthy and her anti-vaccine evangelism seems to be a much higher-stakes issue, because it involves not just children, but everyone. Children don’t get to make decisions about whether or not they get vaccinated–it’s our job as adults/parents to make those decisions for them. But beyond that, it’s our job as adults and citizens to also be responsible members of our communities. The Washington State Department of Health uses the term “good health manners” to refer to things such as covering one’s mouth, washing one’s hands, and staying home when one is sick. I would argue that getting vaccinated is another form of practicing “good health manners” in one’s community.

Jenny McCarthy may or may not use her large platform as a host on The View to espouse her vaccine theories, but it’s important to acknowledge that it could be very problematic for national health, in theory, if she uses it as a bully pulpit. Ultimately, there are some things we know, and some things we don’t know. There will always be unknowns, risks, and public health issues, but I would argue that the best we can do is to look deep at the sources we follow, and try to make the best decisions for our families, while keeping the larger community that we’re a part of in mind as well.

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  1. Would we call them View-ers? 
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Hayley DeRoche

Hayley DeRoche is a librarian with a penchant for cardigans and corduroys. Luckily, her professional life revolves more around technology & information than fashion.

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