Articles

Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and “Green Our Vaccines”: Anti-vaccine, not “pro-safe vaccine”

Jenny McCarthy & Jim Carrey at Green Our Vaccines

Last week, there was a rally in Washington, D.C. How many people actually attended the rally is uncertain. The organizers themselves claim that 8,500 people attended, while more objective estimates from people not associated with the march put the number at probably less than 1,000. Of course, such wide variations in estimates for the attendance at such events are not uncommon. For my purposes it is irrelevant whether 500 or 8,000 attended because even if the lowest estimate is closer to the true number this march represented the largest march on Washington ever for this particular cause, the previous largest having occurred three years ago.

Fortunately for public health interests, the organizers’ timing was very bad (for them, at least) in that they marched last Wednesday, the very day after Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination. The media were rife with coverage of the history-making nomination of the first African-American as a nominee of a major party, as well as speculation about when and whether Hillary Clinton would concede and endorse Obama. Drowning out most other news, Obama’s nomination led to almost nonexistent news coverage of the rally, aside from a handful of television appearances by one of its celebrity organizers. Its relative lack of success notwithstanding, however, all who support science- and evidence-based medicine should nonetheless remain concerned about this rally, because it was a dagger aimed at the heart of the most effective public health innovation ever conceived by the human mind, an intervention that has arguably saved more lives over the course of human history than every other medical intervention combined. That this dagger turned out to be a toothpick is fortunate indeed but by no means a reason to dismiss the movement that spawned it as irrelevant.

I’m referring, of course, to the antivaccinationist movement, and the rally was known as the “Green Our Vaccines” rally, led by the celebrity couple Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey and organized and funded by Talk About Curing Autism (TACA), Generation Rescue (upon whose board McCarthy now sits), and a panoply of other groups that promulgate the myth that either vaccines containing mercury in the form of their thimerosal preservative or vaccines themselves cause autism.

Green Our Vaccines front logo

“Green Our Vaccines”: Anti-vaccine, not “pro-safe vaccine”

The first thing that becomes apparent to any neutral observer is that the organizers themselves clearly went to great lengths to deny that they are “anti-vaccine.” Indeed, the overall mantra of the march appeared to be “I’m not anti-vaccine; I’m pro-safe vaccine,” a mantra that was to be waved in front of the press during the time before, during, and after the march like a talisman to ward off skeptics. Indeed, a couple of days before the rally David Kirby, chief apologist for the “mercury causes autism” movement, ex-travel writer for the New York Times and author of a book (Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic, A Medical Controversy) that arguably did as much to promote the claim that mercury in vaccines causes autism as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s execrable bit of fear-mongering that appeared in Salon.com and Rolling Stone almost exactly three years ago did, tried unconvincingly to argue that he isn’t anti-vaccine. Meanwhile Jenny McCarthy herself has been frequently quoted as saying:

What I really am is “anti-toxins” in the vaccines. I do believe that there is a correlation between vaccinations and autism. I don’t think it’s the sole cause, but I think they’re triggering–it’s triggering–autism in these kids. A really great example is…is, sometimes obesity can trigger diabetes. I do believe that vaccines can trigger autism…It’s so much more than just mercury. That is one ingredient in the recipe of autism…People don’t realize that there is aluminum, ether, antifreeze, still mercury, in the shots.

I’ve referred to this before in the context of the Generation Rescue ad that first introduced the “Green Our Vaccines” slogan to the world. Indeed, I doff my hat to the organizers at this march they’ve framed the issue with such a wonderfully Orwellian slogan that’s brilliant because of how difficult it is for rational scientists to counter. After all, who doesn’t want “safer” vaccines? No one, of course! Not even the the man who is to antivaccinationists the Devil incarnate, vaccine scientist and defender Paul Offit, would say that he doesn’t want safer vaccines, too. Indeed, he’s spent his career trying to do just that: Develop more effective and safer vaccines. Certainly I can’t argue with making vaccines as safe as possible. They happen to be, by any reasonable measure, remarkably safe right now, but there’s always room for improvement. What the press and others at whom this crunchy eco-friendly message of reassurance and seeming reason that fits right in with the current mood of the country is aimed don’t realize is just one thing. After all, if there are indeed all sorts of horrible toxins in vaccines, shouldn’t we get rid of them? It all sounds so measured, so reasonable, and so conservative.

Too bad it’s about as disingenuous as it gets. Like Steve Novella, I have no doubt that Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey mean well, but I agree that it’s not enough to mean well. There’s a famous saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. My usually corollary to this saying is that good intentions coupled with misinformation and self-righteousness are the straightest and surest route to hell that I can think of, and among the best examples of this corollary are parents who have been misled by the pseudoscience of the cottage industry of autism quackery that depends on the belief that vaccines cause autism for its profitability. Couple that with the arrogance of ignorance, which Jenny McCarthy exhibits in abundance and which apparently drives her to conclude that attending the University of Google qualifies her to shout down doctors and scientists on Larry King’s show, and you have a truly toxic brew of self-righteously misdirected anger.

Nowhere was the utter disingenuousness of the “Green Our Vaccines” strategy more apparent than from the “toxin” gambit, which reared its ugly head on all the official literature, T-shirts, and signs for the march. “Toxins” are the new bogey man that has replaced the previous bogey man (thimerosal) in vaccines. The reason, of course, is that even zealots are coming to realize that science is failing utterly to support the hypothesis that the mercury in thimerosal-containing vaccines is linked with autism. Take a look at this emblem, which appeared on the back of every officially sold “Green Our Vaccines” T-shirt worn by almost every marcher in the rally:

Too Many Too Soon

Yes, the dreaded “toxin” gambit beloved of antivaccinationists was writ large in green and white all over Washington, a variation of which Jenny McCarthy had been parroting beforehand and that I presciently deconstructed a while back when Age of Autism contributor Kent Heckenlively produced such an over-the-top, jaw-droppingly silly invocation of this particular canard that I had a hard time believing anyone could write something so ill-informed. Not only was Heckenlively’s version of this gambit wrong, but it was so extravagantly and outrageously wrong that he even–incredibly–raised concerns about the sucrose in vaccines on the basis that excessive sucrose intake can lead to obesity, tooth decay, and type II diabetes. It’s as though he thinks that babies are being fed copious quantities of vaccine and are in danger of rotten teeth and obesity from it. Truly, you just can’t make stuff like this up.

Given that I’ve already dealt with this myth in detail before, I don’t see the need to do it again, other than to make a couple of additional points. I think that I can best illustrate why the “toxin” gambit is in fact an antivaccine gambit by going back to a conversation that I encountered on the Mothering.com discussion boards a few years ago, where the prevailing opinion is pro-woo and anti-vaccine. This attitude was perhaps best encapsulated by a comment by a woman using the ‘nym Jen123:

Mercury seems to be getting tons of coverage. When that deal is settled and we win, we need to go after another ingredient. We’ll dismantle the vaccine industry ingredient by stupid ingredient if we have to.

Who is with me?

Suffice it to say that apparently no one wasn’t with her. I will give Jen123 kudos, though. She perfectly and succinctly stated the true purpose of the “toxin” gambit. The “Green Our Vaccines” movement is nothing more than the very same sentiment wrapped up in a nice, friendly slogan that on the surface sounds so very, very reasonable, particularly when antivaccinationists mention all those really scary-sounding ingredients, unconcerned with getting the actual niceties of the chemistry right. For example, they either ignorantly or willfully confuse ethylene glycol (antifreeze, which is not in vaccines) with polyethylene glycol (a polymer of ethylene glycol, a chemically different compound which is in some vaccines and is also in a number of skin creams, toothpaste, and medications, including laxatives) or ethyl ether (a flammable liquid that was one of the first anaesthetics but has long since been supplanted by much safer agents) with polyethylene glycol pisooctylphenyl ether (Triton X-100, a kind of soap/detergent). They even go so far as to act horrified about the caustic properties hydrochloric acid, which is used to titrate the pH of vaccines to neutral, as though vaccines contained 12 M HCl! They’ll also rant on and on about formaldehyde, neglecting the fact that most people are exposed in a single day to more formaldehyde from plastics, plywood, furniture and furniture finishes, and a variety of other household products and objects in every house than babies are exposed to from their entire vaccine schedule. Moving away from chemistry to misunderstandings of biology, there’s also a love of harping on “aborted fetuses,” as though vaccines were somehow made from aborted fetal tissue. The reality is far less dramatic. For some vaccines, viruses are grown in a cell line derived from an aborted fetus nearly 45 years ago and maintained continuously in cell culture since. (Some antivaccinationists do know this, but they like to try to tap into religious objections to abortion by playing this gambit.) The whole bit about “monkey cells” is a similar gambit. Some viruses are indeed grown in monkey kidney cells, but it’s not as though these cells are retained in the vaccine, and antivaccinationists will play into this as though it somehow makes vaccines “dirty” sometimes even invoking the spectre of HIV. The seem to forget about a little step called “purification.” Viral particles are isolated and the cells are eliminated, just as the human fetal cells are. Maybe they believe in a homeopathic theory of vaccination, in which the vaccines somehow retain a memory of the monkey cells with which they have been in contact but that have been removed from the final product.

Boiling it all down, the “toxin” gambit represents nothing more than moving the goalposts, a tried-and-true technique beloved of all varieties of cranks. Now that thimerosal is increasingly being vindicated by clinical and epidemiological studies that have failed to find a link between its presence in vaccines and autism, antivaccinationists, convinced that it absolutely, positively has to be the vaccines that cause autism and all sort of other problems, have moved on to other ingredients. They will continue to do so as long as there are vaccines, and the “Green Our Vaccines” slogan is just a far more media-savvy manifestation of this goalpost-shifting that has always been part and parcel of the anti-vaccine movement. It’s also a clever co-optation of the environmental movement, although the demand that vacines be “green” has resulted in statements that are so rife with misinderstanding that it’s hard to figure out how to counter them. For example:

But Mason, who has two autistic children, warns that autism is on the rise, and that something has to change. “ideally the legislators would enact legislation that would force companies to use natural ingredients”, she argues. “Not what they’re using now.”

Apparently, Mrs. Mason wants manufacturers to use “all natural” ingredients in vaccines, as though she were getting her vaccines from Whole Foods. I can’t help but wonder if she knows that polio, the measles, mumps, influenza, smallpox, and every other vaccine-preventable disease are “all natural.” In any case, it should be apparent that the “Green Our Vaccines” slogan is nothing more than putting an eco-friendly face on antiscientific fearmongering in the cause of opposition to vaccines. Indeed, if anyone has any doubts that this march was primarily an antivaccination march, please peruse the slogans seen on signs photographed by Ginger Taylor, the text of which was convieniently catalogued for your perusal by none other than another apologist for the anti-vaccine movement Dan Olmsted. The marchers weren’t ashamed of their antivaccinationist element; indeed, they were proud of it:

Stop poisoning children

vaccineskill

vaccinespoisonedson

poisongovernment

childvaccine

Stolentoxic

wmd

GOVbike

There was also video presentation, complete with sappy music, showing these signs:

Another amateur video that gives you the flavor of the rally can be found here:

And, of course, here’s the real purpose of the march:

noforced

Organizers of the “Green Our Vaccines” rally tried very hard to hide that it is in reality an antivaccination rally, but they clearly failed, as has been pointed out before. It would be a surprise to expect otherwise. After all, Jenny McCarthy herself has said on numerous occasions that if she ever has another child, she “wouldn’t vaccinate at all, never, ever,” or, as she said on CNN:

I am surely not going to tell anyone to vaccinate. But if I had another child, there’s no way in hell…….for my next kid—which I’m never going to have—there’s no way.

Tell me again how this march was not “anti-vaccine” to its very core. If marchers are going to make an argument that requirements by the states that children be vaccinated before they attend public school or be allowed into day care represent an unacceptable infringement upon freedom, then let them make that argument explicitly and plainly, rather than wrapping it in deceptive pseudoscientific claims that vaccines are full of horrific “toxins” or that children are getting “too many, too soon.”

“Too Many, Too Soon”: More moving of the goalposts

Ever since there have been vaccines, there have been antivaccination movements. Indeed, it was not long after Edward Jenner discovered how to use the weaker cowpox virus to induce long-lasting immunity to smallpox that resistance to the concept of vaccination appeared, a resistance that continues to this very day. Reasons for this resistance started out primarily religious, with clergy arguing that people who became ill did so because it was God’s will and that vaccines were an arrogant attempt by Man to thwart that will. They then evolved to more modern fears of injecting “unnatural” substances into the body or simple resistance to the government telling people what to do, the latter of which particularly resonates in the U.S. Many fear even the infitessimally small risk that vaccines pose for the benefit of resistance to disease far more than they fear the diseases themselves, a result of the very success of modern vaccines. Of course, vaccines, like any other medical intervention, are not without risks, making it easy for them to jump on any hint of harm done by vaccines, whether real or imagined, even though vaccines are among the very safest of treatments.

This brings us to the other major slogan of the rally, namely “Too Many, Too Soon.” This, too, is a conveniently vague but oh-so-reasonable-sounding slogan. It, like “Green Our Vaccines,” is also another strategy to move the goalposts. The concept is based on the expansion of the number of recommended vaccines since 1983. Confusing correlation with causation yet again, anti-vaccine activists make the observation that the prevalence of autism has increased markedly since 1983, when the number of vaccines recommended for infants and small children was ten, to now, when the recommended number is 36. Indeed, this was a huge component of Generation Rescue’s deceptive full-page advertisement in USA Today that appeared back in February. The concept is simple. It is postulated that the increasing number of vaccines somehow “overwhelms” the immune system or causes some sort of “aggregate” toxicity that is responsible not just for autism, but a variety of chronic diseases, such as obesity and type II diabetes, asthma, and autoimmune diseases. That there is no even mildly compelling scientific or epidemiological evidence to support these claims doesn’t matter. Antivaccinationists have thus far successfully wrapped themselves in the mantle of caution that to most parents without a background in science or epidemiology seems eminently reasonable. It also sounds, on the surface at least, eminently reasonable when antivaccination activists claim that it’s the combination of vaccines that cause all these neurodevelopmental problems like autism. It’s also a conveniently difficult to falsify claim. Clearly activists have learned from their mistake with mercury never to make a hypothesis that makes a relatively easily testable prediction. The thimerosal hypothesis made the prediction that if thimerosal in vaccines were removed autism prevalence should fall rather rapidly within 5-7 years, given that the age range when most autism is diagnosed is from 3 to 5. Autism prevalence hasn’t fallen; it’s still rising. Even those who claimed that “it’s the mercury, stupid” and that “autism is a misdiagnosis for mercury poisoning” now realize that neither of these statements is true. The most that can be said from current data is that maybe, just maybe, a very small number of susceptible children could have a reaction that might manifest itself as autistic symptoms–hence the moving on to other “toxins.” In contrast, the “Too Many, Too Soon” hypothesis is much vaguer and difficult to extract easily testable hypotheses from, which is the whole point of it.

Of course, no scientific evidence is ever presented that rises above the level of Dr. Laura Hewitson’s badly designed monkey study, Generation Rescue’s even more poorly designed “telephone survey” of vaccinated and unvaccinated children, or Dan Olmsted’s easily falsified claim that the Amish do not vaccinate and do not get autism to support their contention that the current vaccine schedule is harmful. Moreover, when the GOV movement claims that current vaccines haven’t been tested in combinations, it’s just plain wrong. All new vaccines are tested in clinical trials against the background of the current vaccine schedule. In other words, if it’s a new vaccine not currently recommended, in clinical trials it’s merely added to the current schedule. If the vaccine is for the same disease as a currently used vaccine, then the trial looks at the new vaccine versus the old vaccine, all other vaccines in the schedule remaining the same. The reason we don’t do serial “one-at-a-time” trials is simple, but nonetheless antivaccinationists never seem able to grasp the concept: It would be extremely unethical to withhold protective vaccines from children in order to test them against no vaccines because it would leave the no vaccine group of children vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases. In reality, this is yet another thinly-disguised attempt to move the goalposts. More savvy antivaccinationists know that the kind of testing they demand is unethical, prohibitively expensive, and impractical, but demanding it allows them to claim (falsely) that there is no science supporting the safety of the current vaccine schedule and provide a complaint that sounds as though it has merit to those without a background in medicine and clinical trials. Moreover, contrary to the claims that the current vaccine schedule “overloads the immune system,” there are actually fewer antigens now in more vaccines, thanks to better vaccine design. Like the “Green Our Vaccines” slogan, the “Too many, too soon” slogan is also nothing more than a fairly clever strategy of preemptively moving the goalposts. Conveniently, the GOV folks never quite tell us which vaccines should be delayed and why or what the tradeoff would be in terms of exposing children to vaccine-preventable disease for a longer period of time before they are vaccinated. That’s not the point. Casting doubt on the safety and efficacy of vaccines is.

Conspiracy theories and paranoia

Like all movements based on pseudoscience, the “Green Our Vaccines” movement is full of paranoia and conspiracy-mongering. The most frequent targets are pharmaceutical companies, which, it is said, profit enormously from vaccines (they don’t; in fact thanks to liability issues fueled by just such activists it’s getting increasingly difficult to persuade vaccine manufacturers to keep making them), or the government. A lovely example of this was Jim Carrey’s speech to the marchers, which was recorded in an edited version by CNN and a more complete version posted on YouTube:

I have no way of knowing if Carrey had conspiracy theorist tendencies before he ever met Jenny McCarthy. Guessing from the level of paranoia in his speech, I’d guess there was a pre-existing affinity coupled with little or no knowledge of how science works. After all, it’s pretty hard to go from completely rational to this level of paranois in a mere year or so. For instance, note how his statement that he is “not against all vaccines” and that “vaccines can do a lot of good” was immediately followed by this:

…but many of us believe that in the last few decades corporate influence has turned the vaccine program into more of a profit engine than a means of prevention. It’s time to make the people who make them, the people who insist that we take them, know once and for all that it’s too many, too soon.

Yes, it’s just standard-issue antivaccinationist big pharma conspiracy-mongering, but then Carrey goes on to an unbelievable analogy:

If on the way to a burning building a fire engine ran people over, we wouldn’t stop using fire engines. We would just ask them to slow down a bit. Well it’s time to tell the CDC and the AAP that it’s time to slow the fire engine down. People are getting hurt on the way to the fire.

I’m still undecided whether this is the worst analogy ever or the best, albeit unintentionally. On the one hand, consider this: A fire engine is going to save people’s lives and put out fires; if it hits someone on the way to its destination it would by definition be hitting someone who was not its intended target. For that analogy to hold with vaccines, the shots would somehow have to be killing or injuring kids who never got them. They’re not. They’re not even, as far as science can tell, causing autism. So Carrey’s analogy is quite specious. On the other hand, the analogy is unintentionally spot on. After all, if we “slow down” fire engines, as he suggests, it would take them longer to get to fires. Some people who might have been saved if the fire engine arrived faster would then be likely to die because the firefighters and rescue teams arrive too late. If we slowed down the vaccination schedule, as Carrey suggests, that would leave more children vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases for a longer period of time, meaning that more children would certainly become ill and more might well die.

As hard as it is to believe, though, Jim Carrey then actually “topped” himself:

It’s time to tell them that we want real independent studies done on the effects of these vaccines. We are fed up with them trying to tell us that legitimate scientific research, court settlements that have been awarded for vaccine damage, and the overwhelming anecdotal evidence of thousands and thousands of parents and doctors do not constitute real science and don’t warrant their attention. I believe that history will prove that the moms and dads were right about autism. The sea of evidence and testimony can no longer be ignored, and those who refuse to acknowledge it now will take their place with the many learned men of the past who insisted that the earth was flat.

And I certainly wouldn’t trust the drug companies to regulate themselves. God knows they’re far too busy fighting the terrible scourge of restless leg syndrome–also known as “lazy ass” disease.

One can’t help but note the contempt that Jim Carrey apparently has for sufferers of restless leg syndrome, which, as Steve Novella pointed out, is a real entity. I have to ask: Don’t sufferers of restless leg syndrome deserve good treatments for their condition too? Jenny McCarthy took the persecution gambit even further with this claim:

Pediatricians, you know, take an oath, by the way, when they graduate from medical school. They really do. They take an oath to do no harm. Well harm has been done. If you take a look at the history of medicine, this lie has been told before. Do you remember when smoking was actually good for our health? Do you remember when autism was blamed on lazy mothers? We were known as refrigerator mothers, cold and uncaring to our children. Well take a look around. I believe science was wrong yet again.

Yes, the Jen and Jim show are delivering exactly what you think: It’s the infamous “science was wrong before” gambit, beloved of cranks of all stripes, be they quacks or cranks. Naturally, the implication of the “science has been wrong before” gambit is that Jenny and Jim’s “science” is correct and the present scientific consensus is radically wrong. In other words, it’s also an implied Galileo gambit. Although Jenny’s makes a good point about the now discredited “refrigerator mother” hypothesis regarding the cause of autism and I can’t blame mothers for being royally ticked off at being blamed for their children’s autism in that way in the past, McCarthy is so incredibly, extravagantly, outrageously wrong in comparing the prior lack of concern about cigarette smoking to the science showing no correlation between vaccines and autism. Indeed, it’s impossible not to point out that the same epidemiological science that demonstrated a bulletproof link between smoking and lung cancer and that smoking was associated with a number of other diseases is the very same sort of epidemiological science that has, despite trying in multiple large studies, failed to find a link between vaccines and autism.

Of course big pharma is suppressing the evidence. At least that’s what Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy (not to mention Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who also spoke at the rally) believe. Whatever sins of big pharma and the government, it strains credulity to the breaking point every bit as much as 9/11 Truthers do when they claim that the government was involved in the 9/11 attacks to postulate such a huge conspiracy to cover up evidence that vaccines cause autism. For one thing, the government and big pharma are just not that competent at keeping explosive secrets secret for very long.

If you want to get a flavor of more of the paranoia that drives these marchers, I suggest viewing this, in which a marcher spouts bad science and conspiracy theories, not the least of which is that the press “always gets it wrong”:

The perfect solution fallacy

One of the common claims I heard from parents suspicious of vaccines leading up to the “Green Our Vaccines” rally goes something along these lines:

I believe in vaccines, but I don’t believe they are 100% safe. Until they prove it to me, my child is having no more.

Indeed, over and over I hear the demand for “100% safety” before parents will vaccinate. In fact, the “Green Our Vaccines” is nothing if not a clever manifestation of this demand. Most parents whom I’ve encountered who demand that standard for vaccines curiously selective about what they apply this standard to. One of my responses is to ask them a series of questions and point out a series of observations that takes a form something like this:

Do you drive your kids around in a car? How can you do that? It’s by no means “100% safe”! Do you know how many children die or suffer permanent brain injury in car crashes every year? Thousands! By your standards, then, shouldn’t you should be demanding “100%” safety from your auto before driving your children anywhere in it? Do you let your children swim? How can you be so irresponsible? 5,000 children a year are hospitalized for drowning or near-drowning. 20% die, and 15% suffer permanent neurological injury. (It’s true.) Do you have a child who plays baseball or softball? Don’t you know that 4-5 children a year in the U.S. die of injuries suffered playing baseball or softball. But deaths are only the worst injuries. Among children ages 5-14, well over 100,000 children are taken to the emergency room for injuries suffered playing baseball each and every year. These include sprains, contusions, fractures, dental injuries, head injuries and concussions, and internal injuries. In fact, although its overall rate of injury is fairly low, baseball has the highest child fatality rate of any sport. I really hope your children don’t like sports, especially baseball.

Clearly you, by your demand for 100% safety must not allow them to participate in any of these activities, nor must you allow them to cross the street or go to school. All these activities are far more dangerous than any vaccine. Indeed, one can’t help but note that if you applied the same standard to daily activities as you do to vaccines, your children would have to live in a hermetically sealed bubble, never venturing out. Oh, wait. That wouldn’t be “100% safe” either. Life isn’t “100% safe.” Nothing is.

The “100% safety” gambit is a variant of what is known as the “perfect solution” or “Nirvana” fallacy. It is an excuse for not doing something to fix or prevent a problem based on the assertion that the solution isn’t perfect. By any measure, vaccines are incredibly safe interventions, with a very low risk of complications. The risk, however, is not and never will be zero. Nothing is absolutely, positively 100% safe, including vaccines. However, they are certainly far safer than allowing children to be vulnerable to the diseases they prevent.

Conclusion

No one–and I mean no one–is arguing against safer vaccines. That’s a straw man argument that the the “Green Our Vaccine” movement finds useful as a rebuttal when the scientific vacuousness of its position is pointed out. In fact, a lot of money and effort are put into trying to make our vaccines as safe as possible, and that’s a good thing. Nor do I (or anyone else I’m aware of) argue that the parents in the rally don’t care about their children or aren’t trying to do what they believe to be best for them. What I do argue, as does Steve Novella, is that for all their good intentions these activists are, alas, spectacularly mistaken about the science that they believe to support their beliefs. Indeed, the entire “Green Our Vaccines” is based on a toxic mix of bad science, emotion, and misinformation about “toxins” that ignores chemistry, pharmacology, and even common sense, all tied together with the fallacy of the perfect solution. That’s no basis for public policy, and the “Green Our Vaccines” movement has the potential to do real harm to public health.

But maybe I’m mistaken. If that’s the case, then I ask anyone supporting the “Green Our Vaccine” movement who may read this to answer a few simple questions: How safe is safe enough for vaccines? Please be specific and remember that 100% safety is a completely unrealistic and unobtainable goal for any human activity, including vaccination. Show me why, in the case of vaccines, my view that it’s nothing more than a transparent excuse for not vaccinating, no matter what is wrong. With that in mind, what, specifically, would it take for you to agree to vaccinate your child? Remember also that vague platitudes about removing “ALL the toxins” from vaccines don’t count, because such a standard is impossible to achieve and therefore meaningless in terms of medicine and public policy. There will always be trace amounts of scary-sounding chemicals in vaccines, just as there are in every food that we eat and virtually every product to which we expose ourselves. There will always be proteins from viruses and bacteria, because it’s those proteins that contain the antigens that provoke the preemptive immune response that vaccines are designed to produce. The question to you is: Which specific toxins need to be removed and why? Please go back and read this before answering, though, because answers based on a misunderstanding of chemistry, pharmacology, and toxicology or on misinformation about what’s in vaccines don’t help clarify what “greening our vaccines” means, either. If you’re truly going to “green our vaccines,” you need to explain exactly what that means in scientific terms; otherwise it’s an impossible task. Scientists are funny that way. They need specifics.

We all want our vaccines to be as safe as humanly possible, but no matter what we do they will never, ever be absolutely, 100% safe. That’s an impossible standard. The reasonable and obtainable standard to which we strive is that vaccines should be far, far safer than the diseases against which they protect us, and they already meet this standard admirably. That is not to say that there isn’t always room for improvement. There is. However, there is also a point of diminishing returns, where each incremental increase in safety comes at an increasing cost. That’s the real world, and balancing relative risks and costs of the vaccination program or any medical screening or intervention program is what must be done in the real world. The demand for “100% safety” is a utopian ideal whose real, albeit unacknowledged, purpose is an excuse for not vaccinating at all. If we are to avoid a return to the bad old days, when epidemics of vaccine-preventable diseases wreaked suffering and death upon our populace, the misinformation and exaggerated claims of “toxicity” and harm due to vaccines must be countered with science-based information of the true benefits and risks of vaccination.

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

Leave a Comment (34) ↓

34 thoughts on “Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and “Green Our Vaccines”: Anti-vaccine, not “pro-safe vaccine”

  1. What a great post. Two thoughts come to mind: although you made the point that the number of antigens in modern vaccines is considerably less than previously, thus giving lie to the “Too Many, Too Soon…overloads the immune system” slogan, it seems to me that the point should be front and center in that rebuttal. In the words of Paul Offit,

    “the belief that the administration of multiple vaccines can overwhelm or weaken the immune system of a susceptible child is at variance with the number of immunologic components contained in modern vaccines. A century ago, children received one vaccine, smallpox, which contained about 200 structural and nonstructural viral proteins. Today, thanks to advances in protein purification and recombinant DNA technology, the 14 vaccines given to young children contain a total of about 150 immunologic components.” ( http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/358/20/2089 )

    Second, there is a non-scientific issue here that is at the heart of the paranoid, American-as-apple-pie populism that defines the anti-vaccination crowd: governmental coercion. I put it that way on purpose, to suggest what it might feel like to be one of them.

    The issue is not simple and it’s not scientific (although it ought to be “informed” by science): should government have the right to force parents to have their children immunized? I realize that some states don’t force parents to do this, and others have an “opt out” clause, but there are at least two legal/ethical problems here that have no simple solution: should most people be required to submit to immunizations in order to accomplish “herd immunity,” and thus to protect the few people who can’t be immunized? Should parents be allowed to refuse immunizations for their children even if it puts those very children at risk?

    The answers aren’t obvious. The topic is almost endless, but most people can probably think of analogous situations in which they would conclude either of the possible answers. Many people (not all) agree that the state’s interest in the wellfare of children gives it the right to intercede when wacko parents refuse insulin for their children with type I diabetes, or when Christian Science parents refuse antibiotics for their children with acute bacterial meningitis. But does the state’s interest extend to preventing the same parents from brainwashing those children with the very ideas that led to those decisions? Isn’t brainwashing also a form of child abuse? You can see where this is going.

    Many quacky issues have at least an element of a legal/ethical/public policy dilemma. Fluoridating water is probably even safer than immunizations, and can thus be thought of as the “ideal” example. “We” know it’s harmless, but why should other people have to even worry about it? They may be clueless, but they have the same right to their clueless opinions as we do to our informed ones, just as each of their votes counts the same as each of ours. Laetrile is ineffective and toxic, but should it be illegal? Of course, say many of us…but then what about hemp? Some will still say “of course” (ironically, in this case, agreeing with most of the paranoid right), but not I, and not because I favor hemp. I favor governmental restraint in matters of personal choice, and I favor an immediate withdrawal from the “drug war.”

    We can all agree that the public debate about such legal/public policy issues requires accurate information, and that science provides that information. What citizens in a free society choose to do with it, however, is a different matter. It’s certainly true that inaccurate information is rampant among anti-vaccination activists. It may also be true, however, that if vaccination were not coerced in any way, the anti-vaccinationists would be barely heard from. I don’t know and I’m not advocating that; I’m just making the point that there’s a dilemma here that is outside of science.

  2. Harriet Hall says:

    When the herd immunity is high, the risk of vaccinating an individual child IS greater than the risk of the disease. When the herd immunity starts to fall, the risk of NOT vaccinating is greater.

    If you could be the ONLY one not to vaccinate, you would be doing your child a favor. We all want to do what is best for our individual child, but it is selfish to put everyone else’s children at risk for personal benefit, and it is short-sighted because it will eventually raise the risk of the unvaccinated individual too.

  3. @ Harriet

    Yes, I agree with you. I stayed away from the varying relation between herd immunity and individual risk for simplicity’s sake. It’s an important part of an informed public discussion, of course, but it doesn’t change the fact that there is a legal/public policy dilemma distinct from the science.

  4. David Gorski says:

    I’m at lunch now, and thus don’t have time now to go into detail before tonight at least, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with the blanket statement that the risk of vaccinating is greater than the risk of disease when herd immunity is high. It’s more complicated than that, depending upon the disease being vaccinated against and the specific vaccine, particularly given that no vaccine is 100% effective and some are considerably less than that.

    Also, it gives a rather more authoritarian impression than perhaps what is reality to imply that vaccines are “forced” by the state. Well, yes and no. True, vaccination according to something resembling the CDC and AAP recommendations is required by pretty much all states before a child can enter public school (although exact laws do vary), but before that there is no law that I’m aware of in any state that requires parents to follow the recommended guidelines. Once their children reach school age parents can avoid vaccination by either home schooling or sending their children to private schools that don’t require vaccination, such as Waldorf schools, at one of which a serious outbreak of pertussis recently occurred. At least 28 states (last count I made) allow religious exemptions with no requirement other than the parent signing an assertion that he or she has a religious objection to vaccination, and 20 states allow philosophical objections with no religious justification required. We can argue over how much “coercion” that represents, but it’s fairly clear that a lot of leeway remains.

    My point in this post, however, was to stick to the science and, more specifically, the pseudoscientific and conspiracy-mongering claims of antivaccinationists that drive anti-vaccine hysteria. We saw the results of such hysteria in the U.K. in the decade since Andrew Wakefield’s litigation-driven crap science about the MMR vaccine, and I’d hate to see a similar problem occur on a larger scale here in the U.S. The point we all need to focus on is that the political debate about balancing public health policy versus individual rights, as Kimball mentioned, needs to be informed by good science, not the sort of claptrap that antivaccinationists use to scare parents.

    Nor should the sort of ridiculous fear of “toxins” embodied in the “Green Our Vaccines” slogan drive scientists to waste money that could be used for more promising avenues of autism research to study and restudy hypotheses that have close to zero biological plausibility and have failed to generate any supportive data.

  5. stavros says:

    Hi David,

    great article, I am really interested in this whole vaccine/autism movement -I have posted a couple of short articles/news reports on my blog too.

    I was interested in your statement “The most frequent targets are pharmaceutical companies, which, it is said, profit enormously from vaccines (they don’t; …”

    Do you have any more information about this? Any stats, any data, any formal documentation? From a quick search on the Internet I found an article that mentioned the problems and high cost of vaccine production that is forcing companies to abandon it but I would like to have more info on this one.

    Thanks, and keep up the great work in SBM!

  6. mmarsh says:

    Just once, I’d like to see a scientist “debating” McCarthy on a program like Larry King begin a rebuttal with, “Jen, you ignorant slut.”

  7. Deetee says:

    As always, a pleasure to read every word you write.

    The “immune overload” fallacy particularly annoys me. There seems to be an completely unrealistic, contrived and deliberately emotive strategy to view infants as tiny, perfect creatures with vulnerable immune systems that need to be protected from the evils of the world at large. The idea of unscrupulous doctors injecting them with toxins and infections is an anathema to the antivaxers.

    Infants are exposed to hundreds of different bacteria species and thousands of antigens and from the moment of birth (well, even earlier in fact, but the primary assault happens at delivery). Tens of thousands of different immunogenic proteins and polysaccharides assail the neonate, getting into and over its skin and into every orifice. The immune “load” is substantial. It doesn’t get any better for the baby thereafter – the rate of exposure accelerates as well as the range of possible immunogens. Infants crawl on the carpet, play in the yard, stuff dirt in their mouths, get intimate with all the family pets, scrape their knees on the filthy floor….. the list is almost endless. Know how many different antigen types exist on a single E. coli bacterium? More than in the current vaccination schedule, anyhow.

    The infant immune system is designed to respond to these challenges, and it usually does so exceedingly well. However, should a virulent organism come along, the child may sicken or die before they have had a chance to generate immunological recovery and protective immunity against future attacks. These are precisely what vaccines can protect them against.

    As you point out, current vaccine schedules contain fewer antigens than 40 years ago. The move away from whole cell pertussis vaccine to an acellular vaccine reduced the “load” by about 3000 individual antigens, and the elimination of small pox took out another 200 or so. It seems bizarre that antivaxers talk about immune overload, when the antigen load is far, far less than back in the days they insist autism hardly existed. If immune “overload” from vaccines is the problem, then autism should have peaked back in the 70s, and should have been declining ever since.

    I suspect that they know this, which is why they like to obfuscate with talk of increased number of injections, toxins and the like. It’s totally meaningless rubbish, but it is always cleverly marketed in a package that garners public sympathy and support. After all, who in their right mind would inject a perfect baby with toxins and poisons? It’s clearly common sense not to do that, surely?

  8. Salmonella says:

    I very much enjoyed reading your article however I am curious about one thing:

    ‘By any measure, vaccines are incredibly safe interventions, with a very low risk of complications.’

    What types of complications have been scientifically documented to occur from vaccines? Do the complications have symptoms similar to autism and is this where the rumour began?

  9. _Arthur says:

    Which ones of the current vaccines are the most “green”, according to Generation Rescue’s “experts” ? None ?

    How much money have they raised for vaccine research ?

    None ?

  10. dutchb0y says:

    Thimoseral-related study…

    can someone discuss this in more detail:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18482737

  11. David Gorski says:

    No need. EpiWonk has already done so in frightening detail:

    1. New Study on Thimerosal and Neurodevelopmental Disorders: I. Scientific Fraud or Just Playing with Data?
    2. New Study on Thimerosal and Neurodevelopmental Disorders: II. What Happened to Control for Confounding?
    3. New Study on Thimerosal and Neurodevelopmental Disorders: III. Group-Level Units of Analysis and the Ecological Fallacy

    Basically, the study is a pile of crap. It’s poorly designed and poorly analyzed and appears almost intentionally set up to produce a “positive” result. Of course, it is by Mark and David Geier, so almost by definition it’s bad science.

  12. dutchb0y says:

    thanks!!

  13. Richard says:

    I’ve never known a branch of pseudoscience that has made me more angry. We all need to do everything we can to fight this dangerous woo-woo. Thanks to all of you for what you are doing, and kudos to Dr. Offit, too.

Comments are closed.