Do Celebrities Belong in the Vaccination Debate?

Elise Solé

By now, you’ve probably heard about the measles outbreak in New York City. As of Tuesday, 20 confirmed cases (11 adults and 9 children) have been identified, according to the New York Times, and city officials are warning unvaccinated New Yorkers to get shots or, in some cases, to get revaccinated. 

Measles is a highly infectious viral disease that causes a blotchy rash, fever, and tiny white spots inside the mouth and can lead to further complications such as pneumonia, conjunctivitis, ear infections, and even death, says the Centers for Disease Control. It’s spread from person-to-person, usually by airborne droplets from a sneeze or cough or from direct contact from touching contaminated surfaces. Since it can be prevented with the measles vaccine, doctors recommend that children receive shots between the ages of 12 and 15 months and again between 4 and 6 years.

If measles sounds like an old-fashioned disease, that's because it mostly is. Measles was virtually eliminated in the United States from 2000 to 2011, and the last U.S. outbreak was in 1967. Yet, according to the CDC, people can still contract measles overseas and bring it home, where it can quickly spread.

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Despite these medical claims, an anti-vaccination movement, is picking up as more and more celebrities, like Kristin Cavallari and Jenny McCarthy, speak out on the issue. Last week Cavallari revealed, during an interview with "Fox & Friends,"  that she will not vaccinate her toddler son or her baby, who's due later this year. This week, McCarthy, who famously announced her distrust of vaccines after her 10-year-old son was vaccinated and was also diagnosed with autism in 2005, faced a barrage of attacks on Twitter over her controversial stance.

The vaccination-autism link originated back in 1997 when the medical journal the Lancet published a small study of one dozen children with behavioral and intestinal problems. Eight had been vaccinated with the MMR vaccine, a shot that prevents measles, mumps, and rubella. As a result of the report, many parents stopped vaccinating their children.

The problem: The study was majorly flawed. He are some facts, published on CNN:

— An investigation by the medical journal BMJ found that British study author Dr. Andrew Wakefield had misrepresented or altered the medical histories of the children.

— England revoked Wakefield’s medical license.

— Wakefield wasn’t able to reproduce his results to satisfy critics and other researchers have not been able to match them. Also, most of Wakefield’s co-authors withdrew their names from the study in 2004 after learning that the study had been funded by a law firm that was suing vaccine manufacturers (a fact that Wakefield never disclosed).

— The Lancet retracted the study in 2010.

Although Wakefield told CNN that his work has been "grossly distorted," according to BMJ editor in chief Fiona Godlee, the study was an "elaborate fraud."  “The MMR scare was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud,” she said in a news release in 2011, adding that such “clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare.”

However, the fear of autism persisted, and a slew of parents — including high-profile ones like McCarthy, who publicly defended Wakefield in 2010 — have vocalized their opposition to vaccinations due to the presence of mercury in the shots. (The CDC says there is no evidence of harm caused by low levels in vaccines).  On Thursday, the issue resurfaced when McCarthy asked her Twitter followers what qualities they look for in a mate using the hashtag #JennyAsks and fans responded harshly.

On Monday, McCarthy responded by tweeting, "Thank you to all the haters who tweet my name. You make my Q SCORE higher and higher. It's because of you I continue to work. Thank you!" According to E! News, McCarthy has also amended her position on the vaccination issue to say that she is not anti-vaccine per se, but is "anti-toxin and anti-schedule."

Cavallari, meanwhile, may be taking over the torch as the new famous face of the anti-vaccination movement.  On Tuesday, she again defended her stance against vaccinations during an interview with Andy Cohen on "Watch What Happens Live."

"There are very scary statistics out there regarding what is in vaccines and what they cause -- asthma, allergies, ear infections, all kinds of things," she told Cohen. "And we feel like we're making the best decision for our kids."

Not everyone, particulary those parents and doctors trying to thwart a growing measles outbreak, would agree.

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