Celebrity advice in child health is parenting for dummies.

As someone who has been involved with running marketing campaigns to encourage moms and dads and significant others to vaccinate their children, I am stunned that the anti-vaccine movement is still very strong and causing major health problems that can easily be avoided. So with the recent outbreak of diseases which we in the public health field thought were eliminated, they are starting to appear again and it is not only quite frightening but frustrating.

There are many reasons for the re-occurrence of communicable diseases and some of it can be attributed to the anti-vaccine movement led by Hollywood celebrities.

It’s a shame there is no vaccine or cure for ignorance.

An outbreak of measles hit Toronto this week with four reported cases. South of the border, the highly contagious virus has recently infected more than 100 people in 14 states. On this continent, measles was once considered a disease of the past. It was eradicated in the United States 15 years ago. Even before that time, “measles” had started to sound as anachronistic as smallpox or rinderpest.

A recent article in the Toronto Star got me thinking. How can I as a social marketer win the minds of parents and guardians of children when I am up against celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy, Kristin Cavallari, Bill Maher, Mayim Bialik, Alicia Silverstone, Rob Schneider, Donald Trump and Jim Carrey, to name just a few, who are delivering anti vaccine messages

Specifically Jenny McCarthy, a former Playboy model turned pop immunologist, has made it her mission to connect autism and childhood vaccinations. There is no medical evidence to back this connection, of course. This is a mission powered by junk science, anecdotal tales, gut feelings and widely debunked studies. But of course in Hollywood, facts are always the least of it.

While Ms. McCarthy is in a class by herself as a reprehensible mouthpiece for the anti-vaccine crowd, others have also picked up rhetorical firearms in the depressing war on science. This includes suggesting

• Vaccines are causally linked to autism (Trump, Carrey),
• Vaccines should not be trusted because the government should not be trusted (Maher),
• Vaccines should be a personal choice (Bialik, Cavallari).

This last argument is a big reason the anti-vaccination movement has spread beyond community pockets where cultural or religious beliefs were once considered the biggest threat to herd immunity.

Now the people opting out of vaccinations are just as likely to be middle- to upper-class urbanites in chic neighbourhoods. These buyers of organic produce and drivers of hybrid cars have somehow equated “vaccines” as another toxic product. At best, vaccines are optional. At worst, they are bad for us.

It’s not only celebrities but Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul a medical doctor made remarks about freedom of “choice” in the immunization issue. Christie feels that parents deserved to have “some measure of choice” when it came to vaccinations. Meanwhile, Sen. Paul vocalized in several interviews that he believes immunizations should be “voluntary,” calling it “an issue of freedom and public health.”

Alicia Silverstone, the actress made famous by her role as Cher Horowitz in the movie Clueless has friends whose children experienced adverse reactions to vaccines? If Silverstone were anyone else, her parenting expertise would be relegated to the depths of the anonymous mommy blog universe. But she’s not, which means that her pseudo-medical advice will find an audience in those who confuse fame with credibility and admiration with respect.

In the case of Jenny McCarthy, who claimed for years that her son’s autism was caused by vaccination, she relied on a highly contested and later retracted study in The Lancet medical journal, which attributed the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine with autism spectrum disorders in children.

The impact of this fallacious assertion was, and continues to be, internationally profound, with the resurgence of infectious diseases such as measles and mumps that were once thought eradicated. The fact that no credible, peer-reviewed study has proven a link between vaccinations and autism still fails to convince some fearful anti-vaccine spokespeople, who bury themselves in fringe studies and the comfort of celebrity confirmation.

These prominent “anti-vaxxers” risk not only their own children’s health and the health of children born to celebrity-affected and/or suggestible parents, but also the children who — for legitimate medical reasons — cannot be vaccinated and rely on herd immunization to remain healthy. Without the fame attached to their names, Silverstone and McCarthy would be a couple of fringe mommy bloggers preaching to the abyss of an absent online audience.

When a celebrity joins a social cause, the response produced can range from admirable support to an eye roll. However, when the issue is whether to vaccinate their children, celebrities advocating on the “no” side can face quite the push-back.  Jenny McCarthy, the poster-woman for the anti-vaccine movement can’t even post a seemingly innocent and unrelated question on Twitter without spurring hundreds of cracks about her anti-vaccine views.

Still, unlike some of the other crazy things celebrities will do to their kids, the decision not to vaccinate one’s children – and the example it sets – can affect the wider community. As public health practitioners will readily admit vaccines do not work 100 percent of the time, and some children – for instance, those receiving certain medical treatments – cannot get them. Furthermore, many of the diseases being vaccinated against can spread before their symptoms are exhibited. The idea of “herd immunity” is that the more people are vaccinated against diseases, the more those at-risk individuals – those for whom vaccines aren’t effective or otherwise can’t be used – are also protected, and the more likely a disease can be more or less eradicated.

 

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The 2010 PBS Frontline documentary “The Vaccine War” looked into debate between the science community and the anti-vaccine movement, focusing on pockets in America where the movement has gained enough traction to be flagged by the CDC. An interactive map released by the Council on Foreign Relations showed where vaccine-preventable diseases – including measles, mumps and the whooping cough – have resurfaced in the United States in recent years.

At the end of the day, it is the parents’ choice. But they do need to understand that it’s a choice that not only impacts that individual child. It has implications for others who are around that child.

Katie Couric devoted an episode of her show to the concerns about the safety of vaccines used to treat human papillomavirus (known as HPV). Critics say she and her producers gave too much weight and credence to the anti-vaccine crowd. Couric took to The Huffington Post to respond to the fuss, where she defended the show’s goal to help parents make an informed decision about the HPV vaccine, not cause irrational fear, while concluding she personally believes the benefits of receiving the vaccine far outweigh its risks.

However, Couric’s intentions aside, that may not be the message being delivered to parents. In some places, opting out of vaccinations has been on the rise, with many parents echoing the anti-vaccine movements – and its celebrity mouthpieces’ – line of thought.

It’s worth noting that plenty of celebrities, including Amanda Peet, Jennifer Lopez and Keri Russell, have publicly taken the side of the science community when it comes to vaccines, and vaccination rate remains high in the USA and Canada. But that also may be fostering a false sense of security that could allow anti-vaccine ideas to take hold.
“We are a victim of our own success. Dr. Kristine Sheedy, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease states that “We’ve made these diseases disappear for the average person so the outcome of that is that parents don’t necessarily feel threatened, they don’t feel that urgency to get vaccinated,”

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