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Will The Real, Silent Majority Please Stand Up – To Oprah and Jenny McCarthy?

Much to my surprise and delight, my recent blog post about Jenny McCarthy’s  “educational” video was picked up by several other blogs and websites, resulting in a small flood of emails applauding my efforts to expose dangerous pseudoscience. I had braced myself for what I assumed would be an onslaught of hate mail (what else would irrational folks do about a sensible warning message?) and found that instead I received a small number of high-fives from advocates and health organizations committed to cutting through the rhetoric and providing accurate information about vaccines. Perhaps the hate is still in the mail?

I began wondering who is in the majority on the issue of vaccines – those who want to study concerns carefully and accept what the science shows, or those who are fixated on blaming vaccines for diseases they don’t cause, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Since the latter are louder than the former, one does tend to feel as if the world has gone a bit nutty. And when celebrities like Oprah Winfrey promote the unfounded anti-vaccine rhetoric of Jenny McCarthy, sensible parents across the country begin to shudder. But when will this shuddering lead to action?

Newsweek released an Oprah expose soon after my blog post was published. It was indeed very gratifying to see a major news outlet take Oprah to task for her irresponsible promotion of pseudoscience. Of course, it’s been years in the making – but I’m glad that someone “mainstream” finally said something.

My question is: will the complaining end there, or will the heretofore silent majority stand up to the nonsense that will put their own children at risk for vaccine-preventable diseases? What will it take to wake people up to the present dangers of the anti-vaccinationist movement? Perhaps a documentary about people who were injured or killed by the polio virus…
I also received an email today from a woman (Jan Nichols) who did not have the polio vaccine as a child. She and her twin brother were exposed to the virus in the 1950’s (just before the first vaccine was available). Her brother died three days later while she suffered lower extremity paralysis that lasted a few years.  Jan rarely spoke about her experiences until she read a magazine article explaining  that although polio has been eradicated in the United States, it still infects children in other countries, and some have estimated that it could cripple up to 10 million children by 2040 if not eradicated. She writes,

For many years, I had been under the false impression that polio had been essentially eradicated throughout the world. But, in 2003, a friend sent me the March 2003 edition of the “Rotarian” (the magazine for members of Rotary International). Her note to me was a simple one, “Jan, now you have to write your story.” She had always encouraged me to write, but I couldn’t tell the Flood Family’s story if its only purpose was to add one more polio memoir to the mix. This “Rotarian” pulled at my heart in a profound way. I was sickened to read that innocent children were still suffering from the killer and crippler.

I sat down with my husband, Dave, and told him that I wanted to write a book. As an orthopedic surgeon, Dave understands the lifetime impact of polio all too well. In fact, this saga of mine has sent him on his own quest. This past fall, he returned to school part-time to earn his Master’s in Public Health. Our son, Kevin, designed the website for the book and keeps it continually updated.

For four years, I’ve devoted nearly every day of my life to research and writing. Since the book was published in early fall 2007, I’ve devoted my time to “spreading the word” about polio and the need for eradication via presentations to students, civic groups, and service organizations. The book is a tool to reach people I can’t reach personally.

A magazine article was the turning point in Jan’s crusade against those who dissuade parents from giving their children life-saving vaccines. I hope that, by continuing to get the word out, Newsweek articles, and blogs like this one will ignite interest in protecting children everywhere.

As David Gorski says,

No one, and I mean no one, brings pseudoscience, quackery, and antivaccine madness to more people than Oprah Winfrey does every week.

If the silent majority would stand up against this false information, we might be able to eradicate the anti-vaccinationist virus – or at least provide a “herd immunity” against pseudoscience. I hope that people like Jan will continue to educate Americans about the dangers of preventable diseases that most have never seen or experienced. Because if we don’t listen to Jan, we may have to find out about these diseases first-hand.

Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

Leave a Comment (17) ↓

17 thoughts on “Will The Real, Silent Majority Please Stand Up – To Oprah and Jenny McCarthy?

  1. DevoutCatalyst says:

    “…or at least provide a “herd immunity” against pseudoscience.”

    I believe this can be the legacy of today’s skeptical movement, if we’re unrelenting.

  2. Mark Crislip says:

    I bet there is a reason it is called the silent majority. The defining characteristic is silence. They are one and the same as the shruggie majority.

  3. Doazic says:

    Here’s something I’ve never seen data on. What percentage of parents of children with autism believe in the Vaccine connection?

    If we can show that the anti-vaxxers are a minority then we can change the framing of the debate. e.g. “McCarthy is not representative of the vast majority of parents or people with autism”.

  4. SF Mom and Scientist says:

    I live in San Francisco, which I thought would be a hub of vaccine non-compliance. When I had my son and joined a few parent groups, I was ready to spread the word of science-based medicine. However, the great majority of parents I met (all very well-educated) had their kids vaccinated per the recommended schedule. In only 2 cases did I meet a parent who was not 100% complaint. One mom delayed giving her child the MMR vaccine, but later did and now says she feels extremely silly for doing this. Another mom did not give her child the chicken pox vaccine because she thought it was better for her child to get the actual chicken pox virus. I know this does not make sense. However, I was thrilled at seeing that most people were vaccinating their kids.

    I have also met parents of autistic children who do not believe that vaccines cause autism. These parents really hate the liked of Jenny McCarthy, because her views have taken away from real research that might actually help their children.

  5. epersonae says:

    There actually is a documentary about polio…I watched part of it while making dinner a few days ago. It’s called A Paralyzing Fear, narrated by Olympia Dukakis and came out back in ’98. Lots of readings of old news clippings and voiceovers from people who were kids before the vaccine. I’d like to get around to seeing the rest of it soon, but my husband said it was too depressing for him!

  6. Scepticon says:

    I started getting quite interested in the vaccination/anti-vax debate earlier this year when the Gardasil vaccine was being introduced here in New Zealand. Prior to this I considered NZ to be well covered in the vaccination stakes. Recently however I have learned that vaccination rates for the childhood schedule are only 77% at the 12year age mark.

    Of those that have not recieved the vaccines only 25% admit to refusing based on health risk fears. This is surprisingly poor compliance for a developed country.

  7. grendel says:

    I’m a parent of a child with autism and I KNOW that vaccines had nothing to do with his autism.

    I know that a few of the notable vaccine experts are unwilling to engage Jenny McCarthy on Oprah or in a similar forum because of the Victim, Villain, Hero scenario but can I suggest that it would be possible to beat Jenny mcCarthy be turning up with two Heros and no villain or victim. You just need an articulate, warm parent and their child with autism to sit there and show people that Jenny is the villain.

    And no, I’m not volunteering for that job – it’d be too much like adding sodium to water.

  8. BenAlbert says:

    To Skepticon,

    I am a paediatric registrar in NZ, so a routine question that I ask all parents is “Has your child been immunised”, “are they up do date” , and if not “why not”.

    My experience is not dissimilar to the statistics you quoted. By far and away the reason most children I have been involved with weren’t immunised is ‘ Haven’t gotten around to it” or the “my child was sick and I haven’t gotten around to it”. In my experience it is uncommon to have actively chosen not to vaccinate. In a small survey I conducted years ago only 3% of parents I talked to had chosen not to vaccinate. However it was a small survey in one lower socioeconomic town and I’m sure the chosen rate is higher and probably closer to your figure.

    It seems that most of the families who have not immunised their children have been too lazy or indifferent, or in some cases isolated to get it done, or to be exposed to the antivaccine propaganda.

    This seems less so in the middleclass, particularly european demographic.

    It strikes me that for your well educated, well meaning parent, who understands nothing of biology and medicine, it is extremely easy to be seduced by the arguments of the antivaccination propaganda. I read one such book put out by the Immunisation Awareness Society of New Zealand (an antivaccine group) . What struck me was that while I knew their arguments were wrong from knowledge I had gained elsewhere, their book had all the trappings of something based on good science. Scientific language, graphs, tables, references. How could an intelligent but non medically educated person know the difference? This is what worries me deeply about the antivaccine movement. In a way they write better than science based information available from the GPs and from the government. Their writeup seems more comprehensive, rather than the more propaganda like brochure free from the doctors.

    As I said I think this is less of a problem in NZ than ambivalence is. Ambivalence can be helped by programs to improve accessibility and callback etc. This is easier in some ways and at the moment more important.

    But I worry for those intelligent parents who want more information, cannot find it from science based sources, and instead select anti-vaccine propaganda pieces. These parents aren’t idealogues, they are earnestly searching for the best for their children. Whenever I meet them, I imagine what it would be like to see them return to me in a years time when their child has haemophilus meningitis or measles encephalitis or … I think I’d probably cry with them.

    I’m not a shruggie, I actively try to engage with these parents and discuss their concerns and explain to them why they are wrong. As an aside, The SBM, SGU blog and Neurologica have armed me extremely well for this. Maybe in the future I’ll try to do more.

  9. anoopbal says:

    I just the ads on the site about “colon cleansing and herbal med school secrets & vaccine dangers”.

    Though you have a disclaimer on top, I don’t think you should be having those considering the very purpose of the blog is to eradicate this kind of quackery.

    If you need some monetary help, have a donation page. There will be a lot of people happy to donate, including me.

  10. Scepticon says:

    BenAlbert,

    Thanks for that.
    Your experience lines up with the conclusions I’ve come to after discussion with a colleague who has recently had children. We decided general laziness, or what you have generously labelled ambivalence, was probably to blame.

    When I related the stats to my colleague he was as surprised as I was as he had found that he (and his wife of course) was bombarded with vaccine literature very quickly after becoming pregnant.

    While I’m generally proud of our laidback attitude it does sometimes seem like a handicap and this is one of those times.

    I for one appreciate any attempts you make to educate patients, as you say, for those intelligent parents that are sincerely open to evidence there is just so much confusing misinformation out there. Thanks.

  11. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    It is easier to scare people than it is to educate them.

    (paraphrased from Steve Novella’s recent post) Love that quote.

  12. kwombles says:

    I am a mother to three children on the spectrum and I have concluded based on the extensive evidence at hand on vaccines and autism that there is no link between the two. So strongly do I believe that and so much ignorance have I encountered in the classroom regarding the lack of a link, that several months ago I decided it was time to become more vocal. To that end, I began posting comments at Huff, lurking at AoA and GR, reading Orac and this site, and creating my own blogs to stand counterpoint to the overwhelming woo I found.

    A like-minded band of posters from Huff and I banded together and formed a forum, http://www.sciencerocks.proboards.com. My original blog, Detritus, at http://www.kwombles.blogspot.com, took on commenters from Huff and AoA when the censors would not allow things on, and I have recently created Countering Age of Autism at http://www.counteringageofautism.blogspot.com.

    I will not be silent. I will not let Jenny McCarthy, Handley, Olmstead, Stagliano, Kirby or the like attempt to speak for all parents of children with autism nor misrepresent what we do know about autism. Enough. It is my hope that they are in fact the minority, but they cannot be left unchecked and allowed to utter their lies uncountered for parents of newly diagnosed children. They cannot be left uncountered for new parents to hear and fear. I have read too many comments by people who say they would rather risk the disease and possible death than risk autism.

  13. wertys says:

    Nice work kwomble !! More strength to your arm !

  14. Versus says:

    Nice smackdown of Ariana and her kooky friends (including Jenny and Jim) at Salon.com:

    “The Huffington Post is crazy about your health”
    Why bogus treatments and crackpot medical theories dominate “The Internet Newspaper”
    By Rahul K. Parikh, M.D.

    http://www.salon.com/env/vital_signs/2009/07/30/huffington_post/index.html

  15. dugmaze says:

    Doesn’t New Zealand have a lower child mortality rate than the U.S.?

    Why?

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