An Open Letter to Anti-Vaccination Celebrities: Shut Up. Now.

It’s hard to know where to start when Kristin Cavallari (a “celebrity” whom, I’m not ashamed to admit, I had to look up on Google) is dominating the national discourse on childhood vaccinations. So I’ll start where the whole insidious debate started in the first place: with a debunked and retracted study published in 1998 by a since discredited researcher in the U.K.

The Backstory
Sixteen years ago, a team of researchers led by Dr. Andrew Wakefield of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Study Group at Royal Free Hospital and School of Medicine in London, published a study of 12 children with regressive developmental disorder, a type of autism (or what we now typically refer to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a catchall term for a range of diagnoses “on the spectrum”). The study found that those dozen kids—a whopping sample size almost as numerous as the authors list—all had gastrointestinal problems, and eight of them began showing signs, according to their parents, after getting a measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination. The upshot? That MMR vaccines cause autism, obviously.

I’m being sarcastic. It doesn’t prove jack about vaccines.

But don’t take my word for it. Take theirs: Fiona Godlee, Jane Smith and Harvey Marcovitch, respectively the Editor-in-Chief, Deputy Editor and Associate Editor of the British Medical Journal at the time they wrote a 2011 BMJ editorial titled “Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent.” The editorial opens thusly:

“Authored by Andrew Wakefield and 12 others, the paper’s scientific limitations were clear when it appeared in 1998. As the ensuing vaccine scare took off, critics quickly pointed out that the paper was a small case series with no controls, linked three common conditions, and relied on parental recall and beliefs. Over the following decade, epidemiological studies consistently found no evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. By the time the paper was finally retracted 12 years later, after forensic dissection at the General Medical Council’s (GMC) longest ever fitness to practise hearing, few people could deny that it was fatally flawed both scientifically and ethically.”

And yet, here we are, a decade and a half hence, and vaccine scare rages on. Yes, people are still commenting to this day on Godlee, Smith and Marcovitch’s editorial. But let’s face it, that’s not exactly where the real debate lives. For why would you wade through dry commentary full of science mumbo-jumbo on the site of a—gag me with a spoon—medical journal when there are celebrities willing to do the research for you and shout out the sound bytes?

Worse Than Fear Mongering
There is one true leader on the anti-vax celeb front and that’s Jenny McCarthy. Allow me to forego a curriculum vitae of McCarthy’s anti-vaccination campaigning and assume that you’ve heard the squawking. Allow me, too, to resist linking to her website, her books or other sources of her misguided untruths, so that I might avoid being complicit in propagating the bullshit. The Internet is an echo chamber, and however long it’s been since McCarthy last climbed atop her soapbox, her flailing facsimilies of truth are still bouncing around, frightening the public and distracting them from the facts. Fear about vaccinations spreads faster online than support. As one science-minded soul, J.J. Keith, so succinctly put it on the Huffington Post, “anti-vaxers are loud.” They don’t have to have a scientific degree (though Mayim Bialik does, sigh), they just need to speak into the microphone, and once their message gets out there, it circulates and expands, not dissipating but amplifying. 

Keith continues, “The rest of us need to be loud too.”

You wouldn’t go digging into 3-year-old comments on the BMJ website, but if you did, you’d find a similar sentiment from Wilson Woo, M.D., an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. He writes, “We can’t blame specific actors or actresses…as intelligence and rationality are not necessarily considered virtues in their particular profession. But as human beings, perhaps especially those who are in positions of influence, we owe each other to sharpen our intellect as serious inadvertent and very tangible damages can result and society can even be destroyed; in this case, one’s child could die, say from meningitis, as a result of his neighbor’s stupidity.”

Maybe you think that not getting your kids vaccinated is a personal decision, like eating organic or letting them pick out their own clothes. It most certainly is not. The point of vaccinations is not simply to keep an individual from contracting a disease; it is to eradicate the disease by denying it human hosts, blocking its ability to spread throughout the population. The goal is “herd immunity.” When a critical proportion of the population is immunized, it protects everyone, including those who are ineligible for vaccination (pregnant women, immunocompromised individuals) and those for whom vaccination did not confer complete immunity (most vaccines are 80 to 100 percent effective, some wear off). These people don’t have a choice. Parents of healthy children do.

Every unvaccinated kid on the playground threatens the herd, including their classmates, teachers, their classmates’ parents, their teachers’ friends and every other person who comes in contact with any of them—think “Contagion.” Now, with childhood vaccinations on the downslope, we’re seeing outbreaks of measles, mumps, whooping cough (pertussis) and chicken pox, both across the country and overseas. For most people alive today, it’s hard to imagine what it was like when polio crippled children and put our nation’s president in a wheelchair. Or when 9,000 kids a year died from whooping cough. Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, about 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States. These days, it’s usually about 60. Or, at least, it was—until more people started getting on the anti-vax bandwagon.

In 2011, Dennis K. Flaherty, Ph.D., an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Charleston, wrote in a commentary in the Annals of Pharmacotherapy that “the alleged autism-vaccine connection is, perhaps, the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years.” And the lunacy goes on: A March 2014 report in JAMA Internal Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association, finds that 20 percent of Americans believe that doctors and the government know that vaccines cause autism, but want to vaccinate kids anyway, while another 36 percent aren’t convinced one way or the other. That adds up to more than half the population. Talk about a threat to the herd. 

Thank heavens for the other 44 percent, many of whom are giving McCarthy what for on Twitter since she opened herself up by posting a question—“What is the most important personality trait you look for in a mate?”—and supplying the hashtag #JennyAsks. Well, Jenny, you asked for it all right.

It’s Time to Quiet the Crazies
It shouldn’t be so hard to tip the scales toward reason and science. Here’s a quick, non-comprehensive review of the voices in this dangerous, baseless debate:

Some notable individuals and institutions against vaccinating children:
Jenny McCarthy, host of “The View,” former host of “Singled Out”
Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy’s ex, former pet detective
Mayim Bialik, Ph.D., spokesperson for the Holistic Moms Network, Blossom
Kristin Cavallari, “Laguna Beach” alumn, wife of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler

Some notable individuals and institutions in support of vaccinating children:
The Institutes of Medicine
Paul A. Offit, M.D., Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
Seth Mnookin, Associate Director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing
The Autism Science Foundation
The Centers for Disease Control
The authors of a 2004 safety review refuting any causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism including:
     Marie C. Mccormick, M.D., Harvard School Of Public Health
     Ronald Bayer, Ph.D., Columbia University
     Alfred Berg, M.D., M.P.H., University Of Washington School Of Medicine
     Betsy Foxman, Ph.D., School Of Public Health, University Of Michigan
     Constantine Gatsonis, Ph.D., Brown University
     Steven Goodman, M.D., M.H.S., Ph.D., Johns Hopkins School Of Medicine
     Michael Kaback, M.D., University Of California, San Diego
     Rebecca Parkin, Ph.D., M.P.H., George Washington University
     Bennett Shaywitz, M.D., Yale Center For The Study Of Learning and Attention
The National Institutes of Health
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
The World Health Organization

Look, I get it. You want to do whatever you can to protect your children. And parents of kids with ASD are desperate for an explanation. I’ve seen it in my own family. But however much you’re grasping at straws, there’s no sense attacking a straw man. Especially when that straw man is one of the only lines of defense between a healthy populace and a global pandemic.

So, to Kristin Cavallari and Jenny McCarthy and your semi-famous anti-vax pals, I implore you to stop your messianic ranting. They are drowning out the real science, fueling unwarranted fear and, worst of all, endangering the health and welfare of this country. You are a pox. Your silence is the only vaccine.

MORE: Have You Gotten the Medical Tests You Need?