OTIS archives

Celebrities Join Pro-Vaccine Efforts

Jenny McCarthy may have a megaphone, but the Kardashian clan has a posse, pediatrician Saul R. Hymes explains.

To say that vaccination remains a hot-button issue is an understatement. Thirteen years after Andrew Wakefield began a controversy over the MMR vaccine and autism, and two years after Wakefield was discredited for fraud, the opponents of vaccination are still going strong. I previously wrote on this subject for The Magazine in “Give It Your Best Shot.” In that article, I discussed the preponderence of evidence that demonstrates the safety of vaccines, and how the pro-vaccine movement needs to co-opt the power of narrative and story in the same way the anti-vaccine movement has made use of it.

We must augment data with stories of children who suffered needlessly from vaccine-preventable diseases to counter stories from people like Jenny McCarthy, whose son supposedly became autistic after vaccination. Others have since supported this view in the scientific literature. But there’s something else the pro-vaccine movement has also quietly began to co-opt: the power of celebrity.

In the months since I wrote about vaccines, Jenny McCarthy — the well-known former Playboy model, who has often been the face of the anti-vaccine movement — was thrust back into the limelight when The View hired her as a co-host. After the news of her on-air position came out in July, the pro-vaccine medical and science journalism community rallied to argue why this hiring was inappropriate, and that she should not be given a broader platform for her anti-vaccine views. ABC went on to give her the job and may yet regret it. (On second thought, maybe not.)

But in the meantime, other celebrities who have been quietly pro-vaccine have begun to step up their public presence. Amanda Peet has long been a spokesperson for Every Child By Two, a wonderful pro-vaccine organization. In May she spoke at a media summit on how to use one’s celebrity as a platform, and also on what inspired her to use hers for the pro-vaccine cause. She wants to increase the vaccination rate not just in the U.S., but worldwide, and particularly in the developing world.

Afghanistan vaccination / European Commission DG ECHO

Like Jenny McCarthy, she used her child as a cautionary tale. Her daughter contracted pertussis as a toddler before fully completing the vaccine series, and only survived because of access to advanced medical care that most of the developing world does not have. That pertussis was even an issue for her vaccinated daughter in the first place is due to a lack of high rates of vaccination and the resulting loss of herd immunity — something I discuss in my previous piece and something that is lacking in the developing world where vaccine uptake is poor. (Peet is outspoken enough that Jenny McCarthy has targeted her.)

The media narrative has begun to change, and that turn towards normalcy regarding pro-vaccine views may have begun to attract other celebrities to the cause. As anybody who follows celebrity gossip would apparently know, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West recently had a baby, North West, and, like all babies, their daughter is at increased risk of illness if she is exposed to a vaccine-preventable disease before she has her first shots at two months. It has become the recommended practice to re-immunize adults against pertussis — something known to have waning vaccine-induced immunity — when they will be near or caring for an infant.

Kim Kardashian’s family doc wisely recommended adult re-immunization to Kim and her family. How do we know? Because it was on TV. In the October 27 episode, “All Signs Point to North,” the Kardashian family received Tdap vaccines to protect them and baby North against pertussis (whooping cough). While I did not see the episode, it was dutifully chronicled by two pro-vaccine medical bloggers. And, apparently, when one of the Kardashian sisters tried to avoid getting the shot, she was told she could not visit the baby without it. She received the vaccination.

While one reality-show episode will not convince the staunchest anti-vaccine advocates, the fact that another celebrity joined the pro-vaccine bandwagon is a positive development that might move the needle. Kim Kardashian vaccinated because she trusted her doctor and cared for her baby. She is not (so far) seeking to be a pro-vaccine spokesperson, nor is she blogging or speaking about this outside the show. The moment happened, was noticed by those who watched it, and passed.

But in its normalcy, this moment spoke volumes more than any fanfare would have. Vaccines are good. Vaccines are safe. We know this, but now we can see it on TV. The West-Kardashians are simply parents doing right by their child in front of a national audience. We can only hope their approach is a lesson to other celebrities: “Don’t be like the Jenny McCarthys of the world.”

Saul Hymes is an Assistant Professor of Pediatric Infectious Disease at Stony Brook Long Island Children’s Hospital, not far outside New York City. When he is not caring for children with infections, doing clinical research on antibiotics, or teaching the next generation of doctors, he greatly enjoys writing, and would have been a journalist or computer programmer in another life. He posts infrequent medical musings.

Saul appears regularly in The Magazine, a subscriber-supported, independently produced electronic periodical that comes out every other Thursday and features five (sometimes more) medium-length features designed to appeal to curious people with a technical bent.

Army medical school vaccinations from the Otis Archives.