Sunday, May 16, 2010

Jenny McCarthy and the immunization debate

Five years ago, who would have believed that Jenny McCarthy would become such a polarizing figure in a current public health debate? Today, she is so loved by some that they bear signs urging her to be our president. She has become a hero for many parents of autistic children and reviled by some proponents of public immunization. Why? Her own son was diagnosed with autism, and she got busy educating herself on the disease. What she learned turned her into an advocate for parents of children with autism who believed that the vaccination MMR, was instrumental in triggering the onset of the autism. Is she right to forward a cause demanding the government, NIH, CDC, and pharmaceutical industry study the safety of our vaccines? Is it appropriate to suggest parents should delay or forgo vaccinating their children? Numerous studies have indicated that the neither the MMR vaccine, nor one of its components, thimerisol, are causative in autism. Hardly any reputable studies show that they are. But some parents insist that they know there is a correlation.

Public health officials are frustrated with this population of parents who question and reject the advice of their pediatricians to immunize their children. These officials say it is a public health risk, and that non-immunized children threaten the health of those whose health prevents them from being able to be immunized. They are certainly correct in the fact that the diseases we vaccinate against are horrible, devastating diseases, and we do not want them to see them return as a common threat to the population. But are they right to say parents have a responsibility to the community that dictates that they immunize their children? Here, I take objection with public health officials. No parent has a responsibility to BLINDLY inject his or her child with anything for the good of the child or the community without questioning the safety and efficacy of said injection. In fact, as Americans, it is a fundamental right to stand up and demand the information we deserve. If public health officials have been unable to convince those parents who do not trust the vaccines' safety, they need to work harder.

I believe Ms. McCarthy and other parents want to communicate with the doctors, scientists, and officials to understand everything that has been and could be studied about these vaccines. I wanted to know, and I am fortunate to have the scientific and experimental experience that enabled me to understand the studies. I am truly convinced that my children would benefit from being vaccinated, and I have elected to do so. But each and every parent should be allowed, and even encouraged, to understand and accept that information. Public health officials should be required to render this information in a manner that is easily understandable to the common public. If parents do not accept or agree with it, I believe it is their right to do what they feel is best for their kids. As far as their responsibility to the public health, I think it is appropriate to isolate these children from public schools and other environments where they could pose a threat to other children.

I certainly do not hate Ms. McCarthy for disagreeing with me. I actually admire her dedication and commitment to furthering a cause she trusts is in the best interest of not only her child, but those of many parents. I think they should be taken very seriously, and be involved in an open national discussion on the safety and importance of vaccination, despite whatever previous experience they may have had or whatever the cause for their celebrity. They are concerned parents, and they are Americans. That makes their voice worth being heard. And they do not appear to be going away.

"The oppression of any people for opinion’s sake has rarely had any other effect than to fix those opinions deeper, and render them more important." - Hosea Ballou