Measles and McCarthy: No controversy, just facts

We at The Immunization Partnership have been following the story about Jenny McCarthy joining “The View” very closely. Below is an editorial written by our staff regarding McCarthy, the media and the rise of measles. 

Measles and McCarthy: No controversy, just facts

The recent Wall Street Journal article “Fifteen Years After Autism Panic, a Plague of Measles Erupts” is a strong example of how the media’s history of perpetuating unfounded fears regarding vaccines can have devastating effects.

The measles outbreaks in Wales and Brooklyn are a cautionary tale of what can happen when misinformation is given a megaphone. Now that anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy is co-hosting “The View,” public health professionals are nervous that history will repeat itself.  

Published last weekend, the article explored how the Wakefield-fueled autism scares of 1998 have helped spur recent measles outbreaks not only in the United Kingdom but also much closer to home in Brooklyn and other parts of the U.S. It also puts forth another crucial point: when it comes to concerns about vaccination, the media play a huge role.

When Andrew Wakefield’s article was first published fraudulently linking the MMR vaccine and autism, it was widely publicized. The rising concern regarding the decades-old vaccine was all over the news, particularly in Wales, where one paper, the South Wales Evening Post, gave the story full coverage complete with dozens of families’ stories.

And why wouldn’t it? The story was sensational. A vaccine that was supposed to protect children could be hurting them? That made for good headlines.

Scientists would later publish a large body of evidence completely debunking Wakefield’s claims, but the floodgates were already open. Doubt still lingered, and vaccination rates dropped by 14 percent in the paper’s distribution area, compared to 2.4 percent elsewhere in Wales. The moral of the story: One media outlet can and could have a significant impact on public health.

Years later, measles is making a comeback, largely in unvaccinated populations. Once-hesitant parents are rushing to vaccinate their children, while others wish they had. There have been 117 cases of measles reported in the U.S. this year alone – up from 54 in the whole of 2012. If rates stay the same, they could very well surpass the 220 reported in 2011, the highest since 1996.

For public health professionals, there’s little doubt that the drop of vaccination rates in some communities – sparked by the autism scares and subsequent anti-vaccine movement – is, in large part, to blame.

Media outlets try to balance their coverage of these outbreaks by pitting often-incendiary anti-vaccine activists alongside health professionals. In their quest for exploring the great “vaccine debate,” they make one crucial mistake.

When it comes to vaccines, there is no debate.  There are only facts. 

Scientific evidence is entirely on the side of vaccines. There is no balance to be found. The media’s attention to the anti-vaccine movement only serves as a platform to perpetuate misinformation and lend it credence.

This is why the public health community is in uproar over anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy joining the popular daytime television show “The View.” Becoming a regular on the Emmy award-winning talk show not only gives McCarthy a platform to share her noxious views, but it also lends her a false impression of legitimacy.

ABC probably thought they were stirring the pot by bringing in a “controversial” co-host, but they neglect to acknowledge the irresponsible nature of their decision. They’ve handed an anti-vaccine activist a megaphone and a national audience. Fears and misinformation perpetuated by McCarthy could potentially influence millions of parents to delay or forgo vaccinations altogether – far more than reached by the South Wales Evening Post.

It is the hope of public health professionals that science and evidence will prevail. But if history proves to be a guide, it’s possible we’re on the cusp of another media-fueled panic that could put an entire generation of kids at risk. 

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