Puttering around on the interwebs, I came across this nice little opinion piece on CNN regarding the influence celebrities have on health-related decisions and why that’s not necessarily in your best interests. I’ll admit, I read Jenny McCarthy’s books while I was pregnant. Her book about her pregnancy, “Belly Laughs”, was recommended to me by a friend, and I got into reading her humorous, highly-accessible writing. I was also impressed that someone who made a career out of playing a ditz or a bombshell actually had the ability to write well. As I got deeper into her oeuvre, I saw her pain as she went through the nightmare of seeing her son change before her eyes, eventually to be diagnosed with autism, and what she went through to try to bring him back to some semblance of “normalcy”. (My term, not hers, and the definition of “normal” is really very much up for grabs.)
As I read “Louder Than Words”, I could tell that she was describing what SHE went through and what SHE thought, and it never seriously crossed my mind that I shouldn’t vaccinate my then-newborn dd. I took it for what I saw as “what it was worth”: here’s a person with (I’m guessing) greater financial means at her disposal and (I’m also guessing) a more flexible work schedule than those of us who work 9ish-5ish jobs. So, even if something happened with my dd and I needed to deal with it in the manner that Jenny had outlined from her personal journey, it’s not like my journey would map 100% to hers.
My memory’s a little fuzzy, so I can’t recall the specifics of the conversations I had with dd’s pediatrician about the vaccine schedule. I know that I did ask at some point about the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vax that Jenny McCarthy blamed for her son’s autism (on the basis of a scientific paper which has since been discredited). I also remember that the doctor told us that the vaccine was safe, and I trusted her.
Now, why would I trust the pediatrician in the face of the story Jenny McCarthy told? It’s simple: Jenny McCarthy’s story, in the world of statistics or market research, would be described as “an n of 1”. She’s one example. She could be an anomaly. If she were indicative of the norm, rather than the exception, one would think that parents would be coming out of the woodwork left, right and center saying that their child became autistic as a reaction to that 18mo MMR shot. But it just wasn’t happening. Plus, there’s also this really overwhelming thing on the pediatrician’s side: she’s actually been through medical school. She studied and stuff. She did a residency. She actually KNEW things from having learned on the job.
This isn’t to take anything away from Jenny McCarthy’s experience. I can’t imagine what a nightmare it was for her to find her son a boy transformed seemingly overnight from a happy boy to one who shrieked and had trouble eating and whose communication skills dwindled rapidly. I can’t imagine the strength it took to go through everything she did to try to restore her son to his former self. I do know that, as a parent, you keep going even when you’re at the point of exhaustion, so I can hazard a guess about how difficult that must have been for her.
I appreciate that she shared her story and I wish that more people would take it for what it is: an n of 1. I’ve seen too many news stories in the last few years about outbreaks of measles and other easily preventable diseases, clustered in areas where the parents were turning anti-vax. It just seems horrifying that the fear of non-fatal medical problems leads people to court the danger of potentially fatal diseases.
I realize that I’m no more a doctor than Jenny McCarthy, and I also realize that the decision to vax should be within the purview of a parent’s discretion. However, I like the idea behind the bill moving through the CA legislature right now that would require parents opting out of vaccinations for their children to have to consult with a doctor first. Now, before any anti-vax folks start to freak out, this bill DOES NOT say that you can’t choose to opt-out of vax. However, it does require documentation (a form) that shows a health care professional advised what the risks were of declining the vaccine.
I see this as a step forward and I hope that states beyond California adopt this type of legislation. We shouldn’t require people to act against their beliefs when it comes to vaccination – but for everybody’s sake, it seems like it makes sense to require that they don’t decline without getting a consult from a real healthcare professional. Until folks like Jenny McCarthy have earned their LPN, much less their MD or PhD, it seems safer to leave the practice of medicine to those who actually know it best.