Letter from Dr Brown
The New McCarthyism
Dangerous vaccines that harm kids. An epidemic of disabled children, hurt by an uncaring medical establishment.
Sounds like a B-grade Hollywood thriller. But this isn't some screenwriter's revenge fantasy-it's a "true story" as told by actress and best-selling author Jenny McCarthy, who was on a nationwide publicity blitz last month for her new book.
When I heard Ms. McCarthy tell Oprah and Larry King that vaccines caused her son's autism, I had a flashback to a cold winter's night, 13 years ago. I was the senior pediatric resident on call in the Intensive Care Unit...
Cradled in the arms of her parents, a seven-year old girl was brought to the emergency room at Children's Hospital Boston.
The girl had come down with chickenpox a couple of days ago - she had a fever and hundreds of itchy skin lesions. Tonight, she had taken a turn for the worse. Her fever shot up to 106 and she became confused, lethargic . . . she was unresponsive and limp in her mother's arms.
The ER doctors suspected that her open sores allowed Strep bacteria to get under her skin and rage through her bloodstream. And now, she was in "multiple system organ failure" - every square inch of her body was shutting down all at once.
IV's were placed into her veins to start fluids, antibiotics, and medications to stabilize her heart and blood pressure. She was placed on a ventilator machine to breathe. Then she was brought to the Intensive Care Unit.
By the time I met my patient, she had tubes coming out of every opening and weeping skin lesions all over her body. I was used to blood and gore, but it was hard to look at her and not cry. Imagine how her parents felt when they saw their once beautiful little girl in this grotesque state, struggling to survive.
My attending physician told me to grab dinner. This child would need me for the rest of the night.
I returned to the ICU to find that my patient had gone into cardiac arrest and died.
I watched, helplessly, as the nurses placed the little girl into a body bag. . .
Fast forward five months: the first chickenpox vaccine was approved. That day, I vowed never to let a child on my watch suffer from a disease that was preventable by vaccination.
That's a story that doesn't grab headlines or guest shots on Larry King. Vaccines are one of mankind's greatest scientific achievements. This year alone, vaccines prevented 14 million infections, $40 billion in medical costs, and most importantly, 33,000 deaths.
Yet vaccines are victims of their own success. Today's parents are unfamiliar with the diseases they prevent, but these diseases are alive and well in the U.S. - I have personally seen children suffer from them.
It's easy for some to attack vaccines as the "cause" for this or that disorder. Call it the New McCarthyism: who cares about 100 years of scientific research? Vaccines are evil . . . because the Internet says they are.
When a well-meaning parent like Jenny McCarthy blames vaccines for her child's autism, placing the fear of God into every parent who has a baby, it's not only irresponsible - it's dangerous. Why? It's simple math: vaccines are less effective when large numbers of parents opt out. And the more who opt out, the less protected ALL our children are.
Celebrity books come and go . . . but the anxiety they create lives on in pediatricians' offices across the country. A small, but growing number of parents are even lying about their religious beliefs to avoid having their children vaccinated, thanks in part to the media hysteria created by this book.
Why blame vaccines? Parents go through stages of grief when their child is diagnosed with a disorder like autism. We all want to blame someone for our suffering. It somehow feels better when it is someone else's fault. Was there "something" we could have done as parents to prevent this? That's understandable.
But, why hasn't the media called out Ms. McCarthy on all the medical inaccuracies of her book? Has anyone actually read it? I have - cover to cover. Here are two revealing points:
McCarthy told Oprah that her son was a normal toddler, until he received his Measles, Mumps, and Rubella vaccine (at 15 months of age). Soon after - boom - the soul's gone from his eyes. Yet, she contradicts herself in her book: "My friends' babies all cracked a smile way before Evan did...he was almost five months old." Which is it? Was he normal until his MMR vaccine or were some of the signs missed before he got that shot?
McCarthy also contends that mercury in vaccines caused damage to her son's gut and immune system, leading to autism. Yet the mercury preservative McCarthy assails was removed from the childhood vaccination series in 2001. Her son, Evan, was born in 2002.
It's hard to trust McCarthy's medical degree from the University of Google - she comments about the Hepatitis C vaccine that wreaked havoc on a friend's child. An inconvenient truth: there is no Hepatitis C vaccine.
I agree with McCarthy on one point. Doctors need to do a better job of guiding families through the maze of autism treatments. But, it's not an elaborate cover up when doctors don't support certain "alternative" therapies. Some treatments McCarthy advocates are downright dangerous
and unwarranted - like chelation. That's already claimed one autistic child's life. Doctors worry that families will fall prey to unscrupulous folks selling snake oil in the hopes of curing their child.
As a pediatrician, I also want to desperately know why autism happens and how to treat it. But, let's put our energy into funding autism research and treatment . . . and not demonizing our vaccination program.
Ms. McCarthy is in the trenches, fighting for her son. I, too, am fighting. I am on the frontlines everyday, trying to keep our kids healthy and protected. And, after all I have seen, one thing is certain - I've vaccinated my own kids and would do it again in a heartbeat.
Ari Brown, MD, FAAP
This letter was published in the Wall Street Journal on October 27, 2007. Permission to post has been obtained by the author.