Jenny McCarthy and Autism

Jenny McCarthy is a TV actress and celebrity author.  After first making a name for herself as a Playboy model, she built a career in entertainment and finally became the face of autism when her son was diagnosed with the disease.  She became an avid supporter of the “anti-vaccination” groups that believe that autism is linked to early-childhood vaccinations.  The link between autism and vaccinations has been , and the fear of vaccinations it created caused the resurgence of usually rare illnesses in a few places.

Jenny McCarthy’s son Evan was diagnosed with autism when he was a young child and had trouble with seizures in addition to other symptoms of autism.  This, McCarthy said, was the reason for her divorce from husband John Mallory Asher who couldn’t handle the difficult diagnosis.  The challenge of raising a son with autism made McCarthy an activist for autism awareness, particularly the Generation Rescue foundation.

Jenny McCarthy, like many others, became convinced that autism was caused by the vaccinations all children are supposed to undergo at an early age, concerned that chemical components of the vaccines were dangerous for babies.  She was convinced by the work of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who published a study finding that autism was linked to vaccinations and leading to a widespread dip in childhood vaccinations.  It was later discovered that this study was based on fraudulent, made-up data and Dr. Wakefield had his medical license stripped from him and he is no longer allowed to practice medicine.  Additionally, studies were done to verify the safety of vaccines and no links were found between vaccinations and autism.  Though the link between autism and vaccines has been scientifically (and thoroughly) disproven, Jenny McCarthy has insisted that vaccines are still a menace.

Because of her celebrity influence, as well as the pervasive nature of Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent study, many “anti-vaccine” groups were formed and mothers stopped vaccinating their babies.  The reasoning behind this is that these vaccines are possibly dangerous and that many of the diseases they prevent “don’t happen” anymore.  Unfortunately, these groups don’t acknowledge the fact that these diseases don’t happen because of the vaccines.  This has led to an increase in infant deaths from vaccine-preventable illnesses like whooping cough.  In infants who are too young to be vaccinated for sicknesses like whooping cough, they need to rely on what’s called the “herd immunity.”  This essentially means that because all the people around the baby are immune to the disease, the germs that cause it aren’t around.  When people aren’t immune, or have children who aren’t vaccinated, they can pass this disease onto babies who’s developing immune systems can’t handle the illness.

Jenny McCarthy tried many treatments to try and cure her son of autism and finally claimed she did so using a method called “chelation.”  This method is not only unproven as an effective treatment for autism, it is also considered dangerous by medical professionals.  Chelation is a treatment used medically for heavy metal poisoning.  Chelation is supposed to remove the mercury that supposedly poisons vaccinated children and leads to autism.  This is a disproven claim, and chelation does not work as an effective treatment for autism.  In true heavy metal poisoning, a person ingests a chemical substance that will bind to any heavy metals in the system and carry it out through the digestive tract.  Chelation can also remove essential nutrients, like vitamin C and E, so it is important to supplement.  In 2005, a boy receiving chelation therapy for autism died from cardiac arrest due to the treatment.  When searching for veritable autism treatments, it is important to look for quality advice.

As Jenny McCarthy’s infamy has grown among those in the medical and public health community, some ideas have spread about her son’s diagnosis with autism.  Evan was diagnosed with autism in 2005.  He showed delayed speech and social skills, as well as repetitive motions.  But unlike other sufferers of autism, he also suffered a series of severe seizures that came under control as he got older.  Additionally, he seems to be “cured” of the ailment of autism now, acting like a normal, healthy boy.

This has led to speculation that Evan never really had epilepsy, but that he had the rare neurological condition Landau-Kleffner syndrome.  This is a disorder that sets in during early childhood (usually between 6-10) and features a regression of communication and social skills along with seizures for a period of time.  The syndrome only lasts for a finite period of time and usually goes away as the child grows older.  The amount of damage done to the child’s speech and language capabilities varies case by case.  In many cases, children with Landau-Kleffner syndrome are able to regain much of their lost skills and can live normal, seizure-free lives.  On the other hand, children with autism live with their affliction forever, though they can learn to work around challenges through occupational therapy and special education.

It is not clear how well Jenny McCarthy’s son has recovered from his ailment, whatever it is.  Much of the testimonial about his recovery comes from McCarthy, so it is difficult to know what symptom, if any, he still has.  If he is completely “cured” from his autism, it makes him less likely to have had autism in the first place.  As stated above, there is no known cure for autism and it is a life-long disease.

The problems with Jenny McCarthy’s views on autism are that they encourage parents to treat autism with a variety of unproven and potentially dangerous alternative treatments.  While it is important to maintain hope for people with autism and continually seek out ways to make their symptoms less aggressive and their lives easier, it is equally important not to be blinded by people who are more celebrity than science.

While many anti-vaccine groups still trumpet Jenny McCarthy’s views on autism and vaccines, the medical community is disturbed by her method.  One of the key achievements of Western medicine is the development and mass-distribution of effective vaccines.  These vaccines prevent many, very deadly, illnesses that can kill children and adults alike.  When many people in a given population aren’t vaccinated, there is the risk that they will transfer these previously rare diseases to people with weak immune systems or infants.  Much of the benefit of vaccines comes from the “herd immunity” that is created when an entire population is vaccinated for a particular illness.

While Jenny McCarthy is the voice for many mothers who don’t have the same public platform to speak about autism issues, it is important to take her advice with many grains of salt.  McCarthy is not a doctor or scientist and though she is a devoted and loving mom, she doesn’t know what does or doesn’t work for the treatment of autism.  If you want to consider an alternative treatment for your family member or loved one with autism, consult your family physician.  Don’t stop your traditional treatments in favor of alternative ones without the approval of your doctor.  Right now, it seems behavioral therapy is the most effective choice for children with autism.

http://www.mnn.com/local-reports/indiana/local-blog/jenny-mccarthy-owes-me-an-apology

http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism/