Vaccines and Jenny McCarthy: the Oprah mea culpa interview doctors want to see

I am sure Oprah had spectacular ratings for her Lance Armstrong interview and so, in the spirit of truth-telling, I have another mea culpa show for Ms. Winfrey to consider: vaccine safety.

Until Jenny McCarthy got major air time the link between vaccines and autism was relatively fringe. But with Oprah in September of 2007 McCarthy, and by extension Andrew Wakefield, the erroneous link between vaccines and autism hit the jackpot. Oprah, instead of producing a show with any kind of balance simply read a brief statement from the CDC to counter McCarthy’s 45 minute diatribe of warrior-mom-against-the-world. Whether by design or by chance Dr. Bob’s Vaccine book was published the very next month and the rest, as they say, is history.

Vaccine rates plummeted, reportable diseases made a resurgence, and pediatricians everywhere groaned. Also, millions of dollars were spent re-studying vaccines to try to prove to the now skeptics that vaccines are indeed safe. The problem? The crux of McCarthy’s and many other vaccine “warriors” is that their beliefs are propped up by conspiracy theory, not science or even common sense.

Today we have a new study that tells us American children are still woefully behind on their immunizations: almost half of the more than 300,000 children studied over four years were undervaccinated. This, despite the fact that there is a plethora of scientific evidence showing vaccine safety.

We as a society have spent millions of dollars proving something that was already known (money that could have gone into studying the cause of autism or testing therapies). A lot of this research has been government-funded, so we paid with our tax dollars. I don’t decry spending tax money on research, but proving something that was already known, over and over again, to try to convince those fueled by conspiracy theories kind of sticks in my craw.

So the mea culpa I want to see is Oprah devoting a show to vaccine safety. I want scientists and doctors. Oprah can use her broadcast arsenal to draw attention to the recent Institute of Medicine’s incredibly comprehensive look at vaccinations that finds “no evidence of major safety concerns associated with adherence to the childhood immunization schedule.” I also want to hear how vaccine skeptics have profited from their snake oil.

Just like Oprah wanted the truth from Lance to be public, I’m sure she wants the truth about vaccines to get the press it deserves. It’ll be a fascinating hour, don’t you think?

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  1. In the interest of putting a face to those hurt by anti-vaccination policies I am doing a call out for pictures: This is in part in response to the Ottawa Cancer Foundation inviting Jenny McCarthy to their fundraiser. This needs to be stopped. If you would like more information you can follow the #dropJenny hashtag on twitter.

    Thanks to everyone on here who gave me the idea.

  2. Vaccines may be helpful to prevent disease, but they have toxic by products in them, particularly thermisol, which contains heavy metals. 70% of the population does not have genetic defects so they can process out the heavy metal and some vaccines may be helpful. However, the other 30 percent cannot process toxins out, so should they suffer for the benefit of everyone else. Heavy metal toxicity causes Autism, ADD, Neuroimmune conditions, Immune storms, inability to clear infections, Parkinsons, Alzheimers etc.

    You present one side, peel that onion away for a transparent image.

    1. Do you mean thimerosal? Can you list the vaccines that still contain it? You are aware that removing thimerosal from childhood vaccines did not change the rate of autism? Here is some FDA info

      Also, what is a heavy metal? That is not an accepted term in organic/inorganic chemistry.

      Also what is a toxic by product? You can go to the CDC site and look at vaccine ingredients. Which ones are “toxic”, what do you mean by “toxic” and please provide some links to studies that support your claims.


  3. WSWDAW, I can’t comment on your family circumstances, but I have many patients with similar complaints, and I strongly advised them to accept the appropriate vaccinations. You should lay aside your prejudices, discuss these with your family doctor and accept his advice.

  4. What about those kids who have a high risk of autoimmune disorder due to direct and immediate family relation who has numerous autoimmune disorders?
    I don’t vax my son. I’m not worried he would become autistic if I did, my concern is he will develop the periodic fever syndrome my nephew has been fighting since his 6 month shots. A fever of over 103 every 8 weeks from 6 months to his current 7th year and counting.
    Or my sister who has a condition called MG (Myasthenia Gravis) who fights pain every day of her life at the age of 43?
    My other sister who has IgA Nephropathy at the age of 35 (diagnosed before she was 28) who more than likely will end up on dialysis some time in her life or in need of a kidney transplant?
    My mother and father who both fight rheumatoid arthritis which is also autoimmune? Or my sever allergy to wheat (not celiac an actual true wheat allergy)?

    When weighing the benefit of the vaccines against the risk of triggering one of the many disorders our family is faced with on a daily basis I will always choose to error on the side of caution. Now pregnant with my 2nd child I am confident in my decision to refuse vaccines for my children.

    May I also add that my son has never once in his life had an ear infection, is hardly ever sick and will run a fever for less than 24 hrs IF he does happen to catch something.

    There are exceptions to every situation and stating every human on this planet can tolerate vaccines with little or no affects to them is just ignorant.

    1. We’re finding that many autoimmune disorders are triggered by viral infections. There’s a significant correlation between flu and type 1 diabetes, which is an autoimmune disease in which the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are permanently damaged by the person’s own immune system. Vaccines such as MMR, flu, and chickenpox are designed specifically to prevent the “natural” forms of those infections, and thus would actually be preventive against autoimmune disorders. So, unfortunately, your decision to refuse vaccines for your children is placing them at higher risk for autoimmune disease. No one can predict exactly how statistics will play out with each individual, but going by statistical evidence, your decision has potentially much worse consequences than it would have for someone who doesn’t have the autoimmune disease. Plus,your unvaccinated children are more likely to infect your family members who would suffer greatly if they were to get any of the vaccine-preventable diseases.

  5. Liam, I recently started using the phrases “population immunity” or “community immunity” rather than “herd immunity” and have immediately noticed a huge improvement in the attitudes of people I talk to about vaccination. When discussing vaccination, I’m also finding that the altruistic argument (get vaccinated to protect your baby, or your grandmother, or your friend with MS) is working better than appeals to self-interest (get vaccinated so you don’t miss too much work this flu season). I don’t like to say straight-out that, absent a real health reason for not doing so, if you don’t get yourself and your children vaccinated, you are being a total leech on the good ethical behaviors of those around you, but I have been known to do so indirectly. One patient said that he wouldn’t get vaccinated because vaccines were tested on animals, so I pointed out that any medications used to treat his family if they got sick were also tested on animals, and that did the trick – they all got up-to-date on their vaccinations, with no adverse reactions.

    Absoluta Vasara, there are numerous longitudinal studies of the vaccinated vs. non-vaccinated, including a very large one done about 2 years ago in Germany, which showed less asthma and atopic disease, and generally better health, among vaccinated children and adolescents. Since some of the vaccines, such as the pneumonococcal and hib vaccines, are relatively new, it would be impossible to find anyone older than, say, 20, who received all the current CDC-recommended childhood vaccines. But as a previous pediatrics in-patient RN, I distinctly remember the huge decrease in the mid-1990’s in hospitalizations of infants with pneumonia and hib meningitis – which can be life-threatening and can lead to severe life-long health problems. As has already been pointed out, randomized clinical trials, that many anti-vaccination proponents keep asking for, would be completely unethical.

    While vaccines aren’t perfect, and there is a risk of vaccine injury, evidence for AUTISM due to vaccination is definitely lacking, especially when you consider that certain events that happen in infancy and early childhood, such as high fevers from febrile vaccine-preventable illnesses, are much more closely correlated with autism. My brother’s ASD behaviors began the year after a horrible course of chickenpox. He was adopted by my parents at about a year old, and had been an abandoned and probably abused infant, so there’s no knowing what his genetic heritage is, or what happened to him before my parents fostered him, but all of us noticed a change from the very social, interactive toddler to the stiff, noncommunicative child. Those same febrile viral illnesses may be triggers for auto-immune disorders also: there was a significant positive correlation between new onset of Type 1 diabetes and the H1N1 flu in 2009.

    Since anti-vaccine proponents tend to rely primarily on anecdote and emotion, we should use the same weapons, along with the strong ethical evidence base in favor of vaccination. Most parents of young children are fortunate to have no direct memory of polio or measles epidemics, but even now we do still have an unfortunate number of older children and adolescents who died or suffered brain damage due to Hib meningitis, older children who suffered from severe pneumonia or pertussis in infancy and had to be intubated and mechanically ventilated.

  6. At least Lance Armstrong can console himself that he has more of a moral backbone than Jenny McCarthy. May not be much, but a guy has to start somewhere.

  7. great post Jen, we had a similar problem in Ireland, dating from the Wakefield article. I spoke strongly in favour of the MMR vaccine in both my newspaper column and my radio slot, and was asked many times to debate the issue . I refused to do this on air; cold statistics would melt before a single individual tragedy. Unfortunately we can’t show all the children saved by vaccination. So all we can do is keep hammering the message home,
    Incidentally a better term than “herd immunity,” is “community immunity.”

  8. I got sucked into all that anti-vax drama as well when certain experts thought my son had autism (he doesn’t). It was frightening. Finally, I got a clue and started vaccinating my kids again…and in the nick of time. My youngest, at age 2, was completely unvaccinated and came down with ASTHMA. I was freaked out until he was finally caught up on his DTaP because Pertussis made a comeback. The kid got a chest cold and wound up in the hospital with pneumonia brought on by his asthma. Pertussis would kill him.

    I hate that I got sucked into the BS that was the anti-vax movement, but I’m so grateful that I finally got a clue and got our kids caught up (and got boosters for myself as well).

    Another add on to this is that, when I was anti-vax, I was also under-treated for a depressive/anxiety disorder (dysthymia). I’m sure that had something to do with it. We mentally ill individuals are easily sucked into conspiracy theories and exploited.

  9. Great post!
    How many more times does this “vaccines cause autism” nonsense have to get debunked to convince some of these anti-vaccine warriors? Vaccines may not cause autism, and they are certainly not 100% safe, but what in life is 100% safe?

    Why is it that the anti-vaccine crowd seems to expect vaccines to be 100% safe, while not expecting anything else they use or do to be 100% safe? Driving around in a car is far from 100% safe; you’re far more likely to die in a car accident than get seriously injured by a vaccine, yet do anti-vaccine parents refuse to drive their kids around because of this? Playing baseball or especially football also come with risks, so should we ban children from playing sports because some will suffer permanent injuries or even die while playing sports? Our food, organic or not isn’t 100% safe. Neither is the water supply.

  10. Boo. Google “SV-40” and tell me vaccines are still safe. No way I’m letting a needle laden with human diploid cell fragments, monkey kidney cell fragments, monkey viruses, other cancer viruses, not to mention aluminum and mercury and polysorbate and squalene and formaldehyde, into my arm. Nope. I’ll take my chances and let my body fight infections on its own, thank you. If there’s so much scientific evidence, where’s the double-blind placebo trial on any one single vaccine? Not one. Boo.

    1. That’s because it would be impossible to get participants in a double-blind placebo study. Parents that are pro-vaccinations won’t sign an informed consent because their kid might not get a vaccination, and anti-vaccination parents would not sign because their kid *might* get the vaccination. If you separated the groups and gave placebo to the anti-vac kids only, then it wouldn’t be a double-blind trial, now would it? I’m very glad you’re not my doctor, if you don’t know this basic information about clinical trials.

      Also, it is unethical to not give trial participants the standard treatment, if there is one. And that is, of course, vaccinations. There would never be a placebo study for vaccinations, in the same way as any study involving patients with a disease might get the placebo for the drug being tested, but they would at least get the standard treatment, unless none exists.

  11. As a person who has suffered from vaccine, and thus thinking long and hard what to do with my children regarding vaccination, I have not found objective info. No long term studies of what is the health like for vaccinated vs unvaccinated. Not just – if they got mumps or measles, but also asthma, allergies, other diseases caused by the immune system. I have repeatedly asked medical professionals to give me such studies and they have none. The answer I usually get – there are no such studies, who knows why. And that is disturbing. If vaccines are so safe, why there are no such studies? If someone knows such studies, please send me a link.

    1. Just look in Google Scholar. There are no direct studies as it is considered unethical, but there are enough misguided parents or people who missed vaccines for various reasons to do studies of the effects of missed vaccines etc.

      Long term – vaccinated kids get less asthma and atopic disease. The more vaccines the less serious neurological disorders you find, again what you expect as some diseases vaccinated against can lead to serious neurological conditions.

      So the result of lots of individually net positive medical interventions is a net positive – unsurprising. I’m surprised the doctors couldn’t tell you this, perhaps they’ve seen enough kids with whatever not to even question vaccinating against the disease in question.

  12. I suggest that those parents who decline to immunize themselves and their children after being shown the benefits to themselves and others should be offered a place to live and attend schools separate from the rest of us. They will then see disease ravage their special communities and may be more inclined to pull their heads out of the sand.

    There is no reason whatsoever, for allowing non-vaccinated children to attend the public school system.

  13. A favourite quote about vaccination I heard recently: Not vaccinating your children due to fear of vaccination risk is equivalent to having your kids play out in the street in traffic because you’re afraid an airplane might crash on them in the backyard.

    1. or they are like special snowflakes, who dont want to wash their hands after using the restroom, because soap & water dries out their skin & makes it crack & bleed…..but still want to work in food prep, or health care services….!! (and yes there are people like this, some of them are stupd enough to go to premed, and talk about how OPPRESSED they are….!!)

  14. From an autism mom on Jenny McCarthy

    “If her unproven biomedical approach worked for her son, that’s fantastic. But she has no right to BULLY other moms into doing something that has never been proven to work in every child with autism and could very well be DANGEROUS to their children. Don’t tell me, because I refuse to give my son a bleach enema and buy him a hyperbolic chamber, that I am “loving” him having autism and the attention I get from it. Because that, Ms. McCarthy, is crap. Any mother of a child with autism will tell you that no amount of attention would be worth what we go through for autism.

    We all can’t strip off our clothes to pay for our child’s $100,000 a year education (yeah, that’s what she says she’s paying for when she said that she was posing nude in Playboy for “autism.” Autism she says her son is CURED from…?). We have to fight.

    We fight every single day. We fight an underfunded and overcrowded public school system of which Jenny McCarthy knows nothing about. We fight insurance companies for treatments that ARE proven. We fight to improve the lives of our children. Not because we are “Mother Warriors” but because we are MOTHERS.
    We fight without a stage and a microphone, we fight without a mass of followers and bestselling books. We fight, not from Oprah’s stage or Larry King’s chair, but in doctors offices, specialist visits, therapy a nd IEP meetings. We do it with our clothes on, for the most part. And yet, we’re the ones she is saying who LOVE the attention autism brings us?”

    More at

  15. Oprah is as much an opportunist as Lance. Having him on the show makes her money, makes him money and doesn’t actually help in any way that him confessing outside of a script / to the relevant authorities would.

    Don’t expect her to do the right thing, it’s not like the Lance interview was for that.

  16. $2 billion has not been paid for vaccine injuries. It’s about 1/3 that number. In history. And hundreds of millions of people get vaccinated. It’s like fatal ambulance crashes. They kill about 40 people a year in the U.S. and injure many more. Do we conclude that we are more likely to survive if we refuse to ride in ambulances? There is over 3 billion a year paid in general medical malpractice. Do we stop seeking medical attention?There is some risk in most things that we do. The sensible thing is to take a step back and look at the big picture, for which the science clearly shows that we and our kids are much. much safer getting vaccinated.

  17. It seems that you’re completely disregarding thousands of parents whose children have indeed been injured by vaccines, which seems to play a much greater role in the apprehension regarding the current vaccine schedule than Jenny McCarthy. It seems that all of us know someone who has had this experience now. As a doctor, how would you explain the payment of more than $2 Billion that’s been paid for vaccine injuries via the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, if the vaccines are indeed as safe as you say they are. I’ve been asked this question, and quite frankly, I don’t have an answer.

    1. Thanks for this. While the Wakefield “study” has been thoroughly debunked, Vaccines are not without risk. Binary thinking is not critical thinking folks.

    2. The Vaccine Injury Compensation Program is a no-fault program set up with a table that pretty much automatically gives money to those who present a case that they were injured. Read the “no-fault” part again. It was set up to prevent millions and millions (even billions) lost to frivolous lawsuits. There is little to no science in those judgments. All one needs to do is present a child with any kind of symptoms occurring after a vaccine administration (and not necessarily because of it), and you get your cash. No appeals. No high standard of evidence, just 50% and a feather. The science dictates that vaccine injuries occur at very, very low rates compared to what anti-vaccine activists would like us all to believe.

      Thank god we don’t settle science in the courts. Could you imagine?

    3. Thousands of claimed injuries (many of which are questionable) is nothing compared to the billions of people around the world who don’t get small pox or polio or measles or mumps.

      Vaccines are like seat belts. Wearing a seat belt can cause injury–even kill–under certain circumstances.

      But you don’t drive your car without a seat belt, because the seat belt is far more likely to save you (and save others, since it helps keep the driver in the driver seat) than it is to hurt you.

      Both vaccines and seat belts have also been refined over the decades so that they are extraordinarily safe and proven to be extremely beneficial.

      The National Vaccine Injury Compensation System exists to compensate the tiny handful of people who are injured by vaccines so that doctors aren’t afraid to give them, and patients aren’t afraid to get them.

      Next question?

      1. What a great analogy. I was in a car accident where I was hurt by the seatbelt and the airbag going off. But all I got was bruises. It was a head-on collision; I can’t imagine what injuries I would have had without the seatbelt and airbag. I doubt I’d be around to imagine anything!

  18. Unfortunately, hard evidence in the way of data from trials etc do not have the emotional pull. Perhaps Ania, if you are not adverse to publicity, be part of an Oprah panel? Just a thought. I’m on immunosuppressants also (renal tx) and I get vaccinated often, especially as I travel a lot, but I never get full coverage. I work in a hospital so I always get colds and things like that. I wish people when sick would not go to work! I’m also pro-choice because if I got pregnant, it would be my kidney which means life to me, or a baby. I choose life. Anyway, that is off topic. I’m sure Oprah’s team is always open to ideas. A two teams gig might be great TV viewing, just to show how dangerous the anti side is.

    1. Great article.

      Chris Porter’s response should also be framed. I echo his recommendation to put the argument to the masses in whatever form they are more likely to take to heart.

      Would one of those ‘’ petitions to ask Oprah to now allow the truth to be heard on this issue be an idea?

  19. We see far too many cases of severe pertussis (whooping cough) in the pediatric intensive care unit. Most are infants who have not received their full (or any) series of vaccinations. They, too, rely on the rest of us. For you adults who spend time around small children, that means getting a Tdap shot. Do it.

  20. Hi – I frequently hear people blame Jenny McCarthy for increased vaccine refusal rates, but haven’t actually ever heard a selective or non-vaccinating parent mention Jenny McCarthy/Oprah/Dr Bob as part of their rationale. Obviously there could be many explanations for that, but I wonder, can you point me to a time series study/dataset that shows correlation between McCarthy’s message hitting it big and a jump in immunization (especially MMR, which is what I understand she was crusading against) refusals? Thanks!

  21. Nothing gets me more riled up than Jenny McCarthy and the damage she did to vaccines. She made my job as a pediatrician all that more difficult. Sadly, I’m not sure the damage will ever be undone, but I guarantee, I would be first in line to watch that Oprah hour.

  22. I am on immunosuppressants to control a rampant autoimmune disorder (Crohn’s, PSA, AS, and Psoriasis, I hit the genetic lottery). As a result I cannot get some of the vaccines available, specifically live vaccines. I rely on herd immunity. Every time a parent chooses not to vaccinate, they are not just endangering their children’s lives, they are endangering the lives of thousands of people like me. I get every vaccine that I can, but it is still not enough.

    Every time I point this out to people, they bring up the Big Pharma, the Autism link, and more and I weep. I weep because real science is scoffed at, while that supported by fraud and conspiracy theories gains strength every day.

    1. I’m with you, Ania.
      I have MS, with the same immunosuppressive drug issues. It’s kind of terrifying to think that one kid with measles could be the death of me because of some mom-warrior parent, but it’s true. I f$%^ing hate Jenny McCarthy.

  23. Absolutely!

    But an Oprah show with scientists and doctors may not be the antidote to anti-vacc ideology. Emotion, stories, and identity may be better vehicles for the message. Scientific authority and strong data appeal to me but not to my Facebook friends in the anti-vacc camp, I’ve learned from many discussions. The message could use some star power and a story-telling coalition of pro-vacc moms.

  24. terrific post, thanks for this. currently working on a vaccine project myself so appreciate the link to undervaccination

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