By Ron Blumenfeld
Jenny McCarthy, the former Playboy Playmate of the Year and B-movie actress, has been on my mind lately. No, no, not that way; my thoughts are purely professional.
Thanks to the supermarket tabloids, I learned recently that Jenny is engaged! She made her announcement on "The View," the long-running ABC-TV morning talk show. What I also learned was that she is the show's newest co-host. So happy for you, Jenny!
Jenny's not your ordinary pop culture figure; she's acquired special knowledge on childhood immunizations, and for years she's used her celebrity to urge parents to be very suspicious of "toxins" lurking within vaccines. She's just sure they cause autism, and has made her autistic son her poster child (she later "fixed" him with alternative therapies. Really?) She has also determined that we should "reduce the schedule" of vaccines to lower the toxic exposure.
Jenny's elevation to a highly visible seat on "The View" comes amid a troubling increase of vaccine-preventable childhood diseases in the U.S. Is there a "Jenny effect" in Fairfield? Let's take a look at the history of communicable childhood disease in Fairfield up to the present day.
By the late 19th century, Fairfield was publishing annual reports with departmental summaries, including reports from the school health officer, a local volunteer physician. They reported on communicable diseases in the schools, but data collection was at best unreliable. In 1918, for example, the frustrated officer complained in print that school epidemics of chickenpox and whooping cough went unreported to him.
Flawed as they were, the reports clearly document the high prevalence of diseases in the first half of the 20th century that are rare or nonexistent today. With the creation of an official Health Department in 1948, the reporting improved significantly, and lays out the dramatic impact on Fairfield of one of the greatest advances in the history of medicine and public health: mass immunization. Let's look at a few examples.
Smallpox epidemics ravaged Connecticut communities for centuries; smallpox cemeteries are scattered around the state. The year of the last case of smallpox in Fairfield is not clear, but the last outbreak of smallpox in the U.S. was in 1949. The last case of diphtheria in Connecticut was in 1962. In 1950, in Fairfield alone, there were 687 cases of measles, and in 1960, 685. Please go back and reread that sentence; in those days, that was normal. In 1970, however, there were 5 cases, and in 1980, there were 2; in the last decade or so, zero.
Poliomyelitis, or infantile paralysis, was feared by all parents; there were many thousands of cases of polio each year nationally, and cases were commonly reported in town through the 1950's. Today, the national total of polio cases is zero. Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a life-threatening disease in infants and young children. Go to "whooping cough" on YouTube and see if you'd like your child to have it. The town annually had dozens of cases into the 50's; nowadays it's rare.
Jenny McCarthy and other anti-vaccine cranks are blind to the success of our national vaccine programs. They continue to spread their paranoia, even if it means endangering their own and others' children. Like all the claims of vaccine fear-mongers who came before her, McCarthy's have been repeatedly and completely discredited by extensive studies.
And yet, the "Jenny effect" lives on. Today, in every Fairfield elementary school, as many as 20 children are intentionally unimmunized, though only a few can't be immunized for medical reasons.
Wait -- isn't there a state law requiring immunizations for school entry? Yes, but in this and most other states, simply signing a "religious exemption" form, with no questions asked, will allow parents to bypass the law and enroll their unimmunized children. And because of "herd immunity," those kids are reasonably protected because most of the kids around them are immunized. Those unimmunized kids get a free ride because other parents upheld their obligations.
But not immunizing children because of the phony risk of autism has real risks. Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases almost exclusively involve unimmunized individuals. And international travel has introduced an increasingly common problem.
Consider this real-life case: a boy whose parents chose not to immunize him comes back from Europe with a fever and a rash. He is taken to the doctor and sits in the waiting room with three infants. The boy turns out to have measles. The three infants, too young to be immunized, all contract measles, all require hospitalization, and one nearly dies. I will let you weigh the ethics of choosing not to immunize that boy. I find myself sympathetic to pediatricians who refuse to care for these children.
Amid a national increase in measles, there have already been four cases of measles in Connecticut this year, more than in the past eight years combined. Three were in Fairfield County. With pertussis and mumps, we've been lucky in Fairfield, but outbreaks across the country are becoming more common. Now ask yourself if Jenny has helped or hurt children.
There's no reason why a Playboy Playmate couldn't be an expert on childhood immunization. But while no one questions her Playmate qualifications, as an immunization empress she has no clothes.
Jenny: Take a minute on "The View" to apologize to the scientists and physicians you have ignorantly insulted, and apologize especially to the parents who took your advice and let their children, and the children of others, be unnecessarily harmed.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears periodically. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.