Thanks to the resurgence of measles in cities and communities across the country — a phenomenon that health officials attribute to a small number of people who claim “philosophical objections” to vaccination — conspiracy theories about vaccines are back in the news.
That’s landed Jenny McCarthy right back in the headlines, too, since the actress and model is the most prominent celebrity spokesperson for inaccurate myths about vaccines’ safety. McCarthy says her son’s autism was caused by getting the shot that’s intended to protect against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), even though that is not possible. The MMR vaccine doesn’t actually have any link to autism — neither do any other types of childhood vaccines. By this point, the doctor who first put forth that theory has been widely discredited after his research was found to be fraudulent. He was subsequently disbarred by the British General Medical Council and banned from practicing medicine for “serious misconduct,” including “repeatedly breaching the fundamental principles of research medicine.”
Nonetheless, the conspiracy has firmly hung on, as conspiracies tend to do. More recently, other celebrities — like former reality TV show star Kristin Cavallari and her husband, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler — have repeated those claims about autism to explain why they don’t plan to vaccinate their children. In an interview with Lisa Kennedy Montgomery on the Fox Business Channel, Cavallari said that she won’t be vaccinating her second kid, yet to be birthed, and has not vaccinated her first kid for fear that it will “induce” autism. When Montgomery tried to present her with facts, Cavallari told the host that she’s “read too many books about autism” to want to vaccinate her kids.
Regardless of what “books” she has read, Cavallari has obviously not consulted the scientific literature — which is generally considered a higher standard of evidence than “books.” Cavallari then went to the go-to talking point that contemporary vaccines have higher levels of mercury than those in the past which makes them dangerous — a claim that has been refuted time and time again by scientists. But hey, who are you going to trust — a medical expert with a decade of higher education and years of experience in medicine and research, or a former reality TV star whose only claim to fame is that her parents happen to be part of the 1% club?
It’s understandable that parents would want to do everything in their power to protect their kids from harm. But if celebrities like McCarthy and Cavallari are worried about preventing autism, their activism is focused in entirely the wrong area. Even worse, it’s unhelpfully diverting attention from public health issues that need more investment.
We don’t know everything about autism, but research in this area continues to advance. Most experts believe that autism is caused by some combination of genetic and environmental factors that varies from one child to another. Over the past several years, we’ve been learning more about just how influential those environmental factors can be. A large study published last year, which relied on the data from 100 million medical records here in the U.S., found a significant association between autism and “harmful environmental factors.” University of Chicago researchers studied genital malformation in boys, a type of birth defect that’s already been linked to exposure to pesticides, and found a strong link with autism rates. A one percent increase in those defects corresponded to a 283 percent increase in autism.
“This gives an indicator of environmental load and the effect is surprisingly strong,” Dr. Andrey Rzhetsky, a professor of genetic medicine and human genetics and the lead author of the 2014 study, said in a statement. These findings add to a growing body of research that suggests the environment could play some sort of a role in autism rates.
Previous work in this field has found that kids who live in areas with high pollution rates are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with the disease. Kids with autism are also more likely to have been born to a mother who lives with 1,000 feet of a freeway, and tend to have unusually high levels of exposure to air-pollutant chemicals. Researchers are quick to clarify that this doesn’t mean pollution single-handedly causes autism — it’s just one of the complex factors that can contribute to a kid’s risk of developing the disease, and something that should be investigated further. Plenty of other evidence has already linked air pollution to a host of health issues, like heart damage and respiratory disease. Last fall, the World Health Organization officially classified it as a carcinogen.
“The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances,” Kurt Straif, the head of the WHO department that ranks cancer-causing agents, explained at the time. Americans are driving less and taking public transportation more, but it couldn’t hurt to have a celebrity like Jenny McCarthy throw her star power behind environmental causes like carpooling, biking, or taking the bus. That could have a tangible public health impact, rather than allowing conspiracy theories to overshadow the very real impact of this disease.
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