Wednesday, July 17th, 2013
The following post is by Darshak Sanghavi, M.D., a contributing editor to Parents and author of A Map of the Child: A Pediatrician’s Tour of the Body.
Barbara Walters announced earlier this week that Jenny McCarthy will begin co-hosting The View this fall, taking one of the chairs vacated by Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Joy Behar. Walters said in a statement that McCarthy “brings us intelligence as well as warmth” and “can be serious and outrageous.”
This decision has outraged many pediatricians and public health experts. For years, McCarthy has been one of the most public faces of the deadly anti-vaccine movement. The notion that vaccines cause autism has been discredited thoroughly. The British doctor who first proposed a link 15 years ago was found to engage in “callous disregard,” his article was retracted as erroneous by the journal that published it, and almost every author of the work has distanced themselves from it. However, the belief in a vaccine-autism link has survived with religious fervor ever since.
McCarthy isn’t the only Hollywood type to spout anti-vaccine nonsense (Chuck Norris and Rob Schneider have joined the bandwagon), but McCarthy even scorns reports of children dying of vaccine-preventable illnesses as a necessary price for her advocacy. “I do believe, sadly, it’s going to take some disease coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe,” she blithely told Jeffrey Kluger of Time in 2009. (Only a month earlier, 1-month-old Dana McCaffery had died of whooping cough in an area with low vaccination rates in Australia. Over the past few years, vaccine-preventable illnesses and deaths have been tracked by jennymccarthybodycount.com.)
As Discover magazine points out, McCarthy’s concern about vaccine-related danger to brain cells is ironic, given she has no problem with getting regular cosmetic injections with the most potent neurotoxin known to mankind.
A spokesperson for The View said McCarthy would be free to discuss her anti-vaccine views on air. But why does any of this matter? After all, what parent gets their medical advice from The View?
The truth is that, for better or worse, celebrities have the power to influence people. In 2000, after her husband died of colon cancer, Today show host Katie Couric underwent an on-air screening colonoscopy, and nationally for about a year, colonoscopy rates suddenly jumped by 50 percent. Pop singer Kylie Minogue’s diagnosis of breast cancer led to a 20 percent jump in mammograms in Australia. When storylines about genetic testing for breast cancer appeared in Grey’s Anatomy and ER in 2006, viewers’ knowledge increased. Like it or not, celebrities have powerful effects on people’s health behavior and beliefs.
Still, one might argue: What is the harm in having McCarthy discuss her vaccine beliefs on The View? After all, people can hear all sides of the so-called “controversy” and make up their own minds. But as social scientists point out, repeating a claim–even if one’s trying to debunk it–only increases its apparent truthfulness. In other words, even if someone says a claim is wrong, hearing it over and over again makes people think it’s true. (A similar example concerns the untrue rumor that President Barack Obama is Muslim. The more it’s denied, the more some people tend to believe it.) That is the danger of giving McCarthy a platform to repeat her anti-vaccine claims to 3 million television viewers. No matter what the other hosts may say, a sizeable number of viewers will question and refuse vaccination for their children as a result.
It’s too bad that among the many intelligent, sassy, and provocative women the ABC could have chosen, they hired someone whose work has the potential to endanger children’s health. So for now, I’ll just hope that McCarthy keeps her erroneous vaccine beliefs to herself.
Image: Jenny McCarthy, via ShutterstockAdd a Comment