What we really need is a vaccine against the anti-science fringe

Meet Jenny McCarthy, the irreverent blonde bombshell who parlayed a (cover your eyes) nude appearance in Playboy in the 1990s into a mishmash career of TV appearances, one-off movie cameos, book deals and cheap publicity stunts that over the ensuing couple of decades have kept her in the gossip columns and, even now, the real grown-up news.

Many of you have made McCarthy’s electronic acquaintance already. When Elisabeth Hasselbeck left ABC’s “The View” to take over as anchor of the Fox News Channels “Fox and Friends,” McCarthy was tabbed to fill the slot of smoking blonde with sharp opinions.

McCarthy is the embodiment of this new sort of phenomenon in our society called “permanent celebrity.” I say “sort of phenomenon” because, while definitely a phenomenon, most permanent celebrities are anything but phenomenal.

In that sense, McCarthy is the archetypal permanent celebrity. She is gorgeous and loud, but stands little risk of ever winning a Nobel Prize in science, if you catch my drift.

That’s what makes McCarthy’s notorious new role — that of primary spokesperson for a growing sect of skeptics who deny the medical benefits of childhood vaccinations — most curious of all.

McCarthy has made big waves making the claim, broadly debunked by actual doctors and scientists, that immunizations are the key driver of increased incidence of autism. 

McCarthy has a son with autism-like symptoms, which she blames on the vaccine he received for measles, mumps and rubella. 

While anger over her son’s illness can be forgiven, her personal holy war against the false cause of childhood vaccination cannot.

There is no honest or intelligent case to be made against compulsory vaccination. According to a study released by the Centers for Disease Control in the last several months,  “vaccines given to infants and young children over the past two decades will prevent 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths over the course of their lifetimes.”

Question: When was the last time you stayed up all night worrying about a polio outbreak?

Answer: You haven’t.

That early vaccination is one of the great human accomplishments in the history of humanity — staving off human suffering on a vast scale, while saving millions upon millions of lives — is an indisputable truth.

But that hasn’t stopped McCarthy and a strange convergence of voices on the fringe left and right from claiming otherwise.

Some on the right say mandatory vaccinations are a government infringement of personal freedom, which is about as credible as arguing that your child has a constitutional right to give my child meningitis.

Some on the left cling to the argument that the science behind vaccinations is loosey-goosey, and that unintended health consequences — read that as increased incidence of autism — lurk darkly. But these arguments have been grandly debunked by the nation’s leading medical experts — women who made their living in white coats, not bikinis.

From the department of “this won’t surprise you at all,” Boulder has become a hotbed of anti-vaccine activism. Boulder boasts the lowest school-wide immunization rates in Colorado.

And from the department of “stupid decisions have ugly consequences,” Boulder has one of the highest rates of whooping cough in the nation.

So prevalent has vaccine denialism become in Boulder that the community has become the ideal setting for scientists to study the topic.

Where else but Boulder can you find such a large control sample of unhinged parents who will jeopardize their child’s health on the whimsy of a bizarre, anti-science theology? Why, nowhere, of course. And so the scientists make their way to Boulder to study the effects of this reckless religion.

One such study found that children in Boulder who didn’t receive the whoopping cough vaccine were 23 times more likely to contract whooping cough.

Surprised? Me neither.

Mother Jones magazine tells the story more starkly. 

“In the last trimester of her pregnancy, Helena Moran caught a cough that she couldn’t get rid of. She figured she’d picked up the germ — whatever it was — from one of her patients at a Boulder dentist’s office. But the real nightmare began after her daughter, Evelina, was born: The baby began to cough and cough, and then she’d curl up in a little ball and turn blue. At the emergency room, she was diagnosed with whooping cough. She spent the next five weeks in intensive care and suffered permanent lung damage.

“It turned out that by working in Boulder —one of the wealthiest, most well-educated towns in the country — Moran had put herself at risk of contracting a disease that largely disappeared after widespread vaccination against it began in the 1950s. Since the early 1990s, whooping cough has periodically whipped through Boulder, where a large percentage of parents do not immunize their children, public health officials say.”

The conclusion in all this is obvious — McCarthy and those unhinged parents in Boulder are behaving recklessly, both from the vantage of their children and mine. Let’s hope their anti-science sickness doesn’t spread. We can only hope scientists come up with a vaccine for the permanent celebrity and Boulder soon.

Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He graduated from Grand Junction High School and Mesa State college.




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