Most Americans first heard of Jenny McCarthy, a blonde actress and entertainment personality, from her stint as Playboy Playmate of the Year in 1994 and as host of various MTV programs in the mid- to late ’90s. In the early 1990s, as she rose to relative fame, it would’ve been hard to imagine the toll her activism could and would take on public health. Since McCarthy’s son was diagnosed with autism, McCarthy has become an outspoken celebrity spokeswoman for activists who link the disease with vaccinations. Who would believe that 24 percent of parents would look to someone for their children’s medical advice who was best known for her blonde hair color and ample bosom? Unfortunately not just for the children of those surveyed in this 2011 University of Michigan poll, but for all Americans, it appears that two percent of parents trust celebrities “a lot,” and 24 percent trust them to “some extent.”
Now that the lineup at the popular daytime talk show The View is shuffling, it appears that McCarthy, according to reports, may have a new platform for her dangerous and unsubstantiated claims on vaccines as co-host. Just how dangerous is the exposure that The View may now be giving to McCarthy? The website “Anti-Vaccine Body Count” (which until late last year was actually called the “Jenny McCarthy Body Count,” a nod to the power of the most vocal anti-vaccination advocate on the national stage) gives some chilling statistics. Since June 2007 more than 118,000 individuals have been infected with preventable illnesses like the measles, mumps and whooping cough, and of those more than 1,100 have died.
There have been countless stories over the last several years about outbreaks of diseases that were on their way to becoming rare before the anti-vaccination movement took hold. The KQED Science blog for NPR reports today on recent outbreaks of pertussis, also known as whooping cough:
In 2010, the United States saw 27,550 pertussis cases, the most since 1959, when health officials logged 40,000 cases. Following the cyclical nature of the disease, incidence dropped the next year (with 18,719 cases reported) but then exploded to 41,000 in 2012, when 49 states reported disease spikes.
Vaccination and public health advocates have suggested various ways to dissuade ABC from hiring McCarthy, ranging from emailing the network directly to signing a petition on Change.org. One would hope that campaigns of this nature wouldn’t be necessary to convince ABC that hiring McCarthy would not only harm the show and its reputation, but also public health. Given McCarthy’s numerous appearances as a guest co-host, which often serves as an audition for potential future permanent slots, that does not appear to be the case. The power of celebrity is unfortunate but real, and in McCarthy’s case, the power of celebrity to do harm outweighs any positive attributes she may have otherwise brought to the show’s lineup.