Antivaccinationists denying the cult of Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy

Two of the great “icons”—if you can call them “great” given that they’re icons but hardly “great”—of the antivaccine movement are Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy. Over the last decade, they have arguably been the most influential people in the antivaccine movement. The reasons are simple. Let’s look at Jenny McCarthy first. In 2007, when her child Evan was diagnosed with autism and she blamed MMR vaccine for it, McCarthy became virtually overnight the single most famous celebrity antivaccine advocate. With her then-boyfriend Jim Carrey, in 2008 she led an antivaccine march on Washington under the deceptive slogan “Green Our Vaccines,” and around the same time she took over as president of one of the louder antivaccine organizations, Generation Rescue. Sure, she was a figurehead, but she’s been an effective figurehead. In the time since then (at least until a certain schism among antivaccinationists), McCarthy showed up every year to bask in the adoration of the antivaccine faithful at the yearly antivaccine and autism quackfest known as Autism One. For several years, she was ubiquitous in the media. Any time there was a story about vaccines or autism, credulous journalists would feel seemingly obligated to interview her, as she dropped astoundingly stupid false dichotomies about vaccines like:

I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.

Even though of late she’s toned her antivaccine activities down, most likely in search of greater mainstream acceptance in light of the difficulties her history caused her when she was named to be a regular on The View, she remains an undeniable icon, a veritable hero of the antivaccine movement.

Andrew Wakefield’s involvement with the antivaccine movement dates back ten years longer than Jenny McCarthy’s. Wakefield, of course, is best known for his infamous 1998 Lancet case series in which he linked the MMR vaccine autism, particularly bowel problems in autistic children. At the time, as Brian Deer later showed, he had been working for a trial lawyer looking to sue vaccine manufacturers for “vaccine-induced” autism in his clients. For a time, he was a rock star. Whenever there were stories about autism or vaccines, he was the go-to “scientist” to represent the “other” side; i.e., the view that vaccines caused autism. Ultimately Wakefield was disgraced. In rapid order, he lost his UK medical license, was dismissed as medical director of the quack clinic he had founded in Texas, saw his Lancet paper retracted, and was revealed as a total scientific fraud.

Given the importance of Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy to the modern antivaccine movement, it never ceases to amuse me when I see antivaccine activists try to deny it, and I saw a doozy of an example the other day. True, it’s over two weeks old, but butter late than never. It comes from everybody’s favorite (and most inaptly named) blog, The Thinking Moms’ Revolution, courtesy of the even more inaptly named blogger known as The Professor, in the form of a hilarious post entitled, “Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy Made Me Do It!” Is a Big Fat Lie.

The first thing the Professor is peeved about is that she perceives journalists as always painting her and her fellow Dunning-Kruger poster children as worshiping at the altar of Wakefield and McCarthy:

You see, journalists ask us vaccine-choice advocates why we do what we do, and we are not shy about telling them. We talk about what we’ve seen first-hand in our children, the mountains of scientific studies we have waded through (quoting chapter and verse all the while) clearly implicating vaccines in a whole host of conditions that involve immune system dysregulation that are all on the rise, and the Freedom of Information Act requests that have exposed corruption and collusion at the highest levels of the CDC.

We tell them everything – repeatedly. And what do they say? “Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy made them do it.”

Every. Damn. Time.

Now, I can’t blame the “man in the street” (or, in my daughter’s case, the teacher at her school) for thinking we’re stupid. If I didn’t know me (and about a thousand other vaccine-choice advocates) personally, I might think we were pretty stupid too if the only issues I ever saw mentioned in mainstream media were “that discredited doctor” and the “Playboy bunny.” But it’s bullshit, and everyone needs to know it’s bullshit, whether or not it is written in “reputable” media outlets like the New York Times. And you need to call it out every time you see it.

Now, I have no doubt that there might be some lazy journalists out there who paint the antivaccine movement as being almost entirely due to Wakefield and McCarthy. It’s an easy narrative. On the other hand, I can’t help but note that The Profesor doesn’t cite or quote a single legitimate offending example. Indeed, the New York Times article she cites doesn’t even mention Jenny McCarthy, although it quite properly mentions how Andrew Wakefield’s study was shown to be fraudulent. It certainly doesn’t paint antivaccinationists as being in the thrall to Wakefield and McCarthy. That The Professor perceives it that way makes me ask: “Chip on your shoulder, much?”

None of that stops her from going on quite the uninformed antivaccine rant, promising to “finally put the lie to rest” while bragging that “the average ‘anti-vaxxer’ can run rings around them in terms of knowledge about not only Wakefield and McCarthy, but far more importantly, about vaccines in general as well – starting with the fact that the MMR never contained mercury.” At least she doesn’t deny she’s an antivaccinationist, other than through the use of scare quotes. In any case, she engages in a bit of revisionist history. Yes, Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet paper didn’t explicitly claim that MMR caused autism. It claimed to find a novel form of bowel inflammation, later dubbed “autistic enterocolitis” (and, I note, later found not to exist), and linked it temporally to MMR vaccination. It’s hard not to take pleasure in pointing out that, for someone who claims to know Wakefield’s 1998 study so well, The Professor gets one thing very wrong: “What they found was a novel form of serious bowel disease in children . . . and vaccine-strain measles virus.” No, Wakefield’s 1998 paper didn’t identify vaccine-strain measles virus. That claim came later in a paper that was marked by some truly awful PCR so incompetent that false positives were inevitable.

None of which stops The Professor from arguing:

So Wakefield and twelve colleagues said they found vaccine-strain measles in the guts of 12 sick kids, and somehow Wakefield (single-handedly, by the way, the press virtually never mentions any of the other twelve authors) gets the “blame” for the fact that more and more parents are weighing the risks and benefits of each vaccine for themselves and their children and some of them are rejecting them altogether. Even if you don’t listen to the parents actually doing said questioning and rejecting, even if you take the whole situation at face value, how is that a logical conclusion? Wakefield et al mentioned one vaccine, the MMR, in their case series – a paper that is never mentioned in mainstream media without being accompanied by the words “retracted,” “discredited,” and/or “fraudulent.” And, when asked about that one vaccine, Wakefield recommended continuing to vaccinate against those diseases with monovalent vaccines. Why on Earth would anyone use that paper as the basis of a decision to forgo any other vaccine, much less all vaccines?

Answer? They wouldn’t.

Of course, the reason Wakefield’s case series is always mentioned along with the words “retracted,” “discredited,” and/or “fraudulent” is because it is all of these things. Also, the reason Wakefield “gets the blame” is because he was both the first and corresponding author, which means that he was not only the person in whose lab the research was done but also the primary author. It was his study. He owned it. He still does. The other thing that The Professor conveniently neglects to admit is that the reason Wakefield continued to recommend vaccinating against the measles is because he had filed his very own patent for a “safer measles vaccine.” Basically, if Wakefield were able to discredit the MMR, he’d create a market for his newer, allegedly “safer” measles vaccine. As I’ve put it many times, Wakefield was a fraudster who was in it for the money from the very beginning.

Unfortunately, he’s had a huge influence against vaccines, at least until he was discredited. As I hate to admit but have to, as much as I wish it were the evidence that convinced journalists and the average lay person that vaccines are safe and the MMR does not cause autism, I fear that it was just how thoroughly discredited Andrew Wakefield was that ultimately did it.

As for Jenny McCarthy, The Professor seems to want to have it both ways. Remember how she was just ranting about how she and her fellow antivaccine warriors are not in thrall to Jenny McCarthy, that Jenny McCarthy didn’t “make her do it”? Compare that claim to this:

I suspect that McCarthy has, indeed, had an effect on the number of people who believe that “vaccines cause autism,” certainly more than Andrew Wakefield et al’s “discredited” 1998 case series. But that fact lies less in her beauty or celebrity than it does in the fact that she is a mother who is brave enough to tell the truth about what happened to her child, despite the extremely negative press she gets for doing so. That resonates with people, especially people who have experienced something similar. What the media never seems to report is that McCarthy is just one of many, many parents with eerily similar stories. When Jenny McCarthy spoke up on television and in her books, she gave many other parents who had similar experiences the bravery to speak up about what they too had witnessed. But like the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby, the overall credibility of the claims does not derive from the fact that one person – no matter how beautiful or famous – said it. It derives from the fact that many people tell similar stories. In this case, there are literally thousands of people saying their children were developing normally until a round of vaccines blew them out of the water (possibly never to return) and even more who say that, when their children have been treated for various types of vaccine damage, they get better.

So wait. Jenny McCarthy didn’t “make her do it” but she has had more influence than Andrew Wakefield in persuading parents that vaccines cause autism? Which is it?

Perhaps the biggest “WTF?” moment, however, is The Professor’s invoking of the Bill Cosby sexual assault allegations. I mean, seriously: WTF? This is the most bizarre analogy I’ve heard in a long time. So let me get this straight:

Whose “fault” is it that the public perceives Bill Cosby as a serial sex offender? Is it Andrea Constand, who initiated a lawsuit against him back in 2004 – the lawsuit that caused a number of women to get brave enough to go on the record with their own accusations? They didn’t get the opportunity to testify in court then, as it turned out, and their accusations never picked up steam. So maybe it’s comedian Hannibal Buress, who called Cosby out as a rapist in his stand-up act in a video that went viral. Or maybe it’s Barbara Bowman’s” fault.” She’s the victim who began the recent escalating round of accusations with a piece in the Washington Post about her own history with Cosby. Or how about Lycia Naff, the journalist who tracked down Bowman and wrote a story for the U.K.’s Daily Mail? Or maybe, just maybe . . . now this is really radical here . . . perhaps it is Cosby himself who is to blame for the public’s perception of him as a serial sex offender because he actually is a serial sex offender.

Wow. I wish I could scrub my retinas and brain of the image of those words. Here’s a hint why. Start by asking yourself a question: Is there difference between allegations of sexual assault and answering a scientific question, such as whether vaccines cause autism? Of course there is, and it all boils down in the way such questions are answered. The question of whether vaccines cause autism can be approached scientifically, without the need for anecdotes. The question of Cosby’s guilt or innocence, in contrast, requires evaluating anecdotes because there is no real scientific way using objective evidence to determine whether he did or did not sexually assault all those women. That’s why, in the case of the Cosby case, as the number of stories by women allegedly assaulted by him increases in number and consistency, it’s harder and harder to ignore them. In the case of medical questions, anecdotes can be profoundly misleading, as I’ve explained so many times before, and we don’t have to rely on them anyway because we have epidemiology, science, and clinical trials.

In the end, The Professor is so anxious to prove that she and her fellow antivaccinationists are not mindless zombies following Andrew Wakefield and/or Jenny McCarthy that, ironically, she’s willing to throw them both under the bus by denying their importance. Unfortunately, they were (and are) both very important and have influenced untold parents not to vaccinate.