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On Tuesday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB-277 into law, removing the ability for parents to opt out of vaccinating their public school-age children for personal and religious exemptions.
In the wake of this, I knew the anti-vaccination cavalry would be mounting their steeds. What I wasn’t expecting was a series of tweets from actor Jim Carrey, showing exactly why those of us on the side of reality cannot rest, even after a lovely legislative victory.
Jim Carrey is a comedic actor, and I’ll note that I quite like a few of his movies and performances. But I stopped going to the theater to see them a few years ago, after he hooked up with Jenny McCarthy and joined her on her bizarre and fact-free crusade against one of the most successful medical procedures of all time.
He’s been vocal in the past; in 2009 he wrote an anti-vax screed for the Huffington Post (the journalistic equivalent of the Mos Eisley tavern for anti-vaxxers)*, and he joined McCarthy to publicly defend the disgraced and humiliated doctor Andrew Wakefield, whose unethical research, retracted paper, and conflicts of interest started the modern anti-vax movement and earned him an accusation of fraud from the British Medical Journal. When they were together, he and McCarthy were the public face of the anti-vax movement, promoting the long-debunked notion that vaccines cause autism.
But this hasn’t stopped Carrey. Tuesday night he went on quite the rant on Twitter, sending out a series of tweets that were, to be charitable, completely wrong. Let’s take a look.
Greed? Ah, a variation on the “Big Pharma shill” gambit, the claim that somehow pharmaceutical corporations make huge amounts of money on vaccines. Actually, if money were the only reason they did this, it would be far more profitable for those companies to let people get sick. Hospital and clinic visits make them way more money.
One of the basic claims made by anti-vaxxers is that there are toxins in vaccines. But there are toxins in everything. The concern isn’t that they’re there, it’s in the amount. Eating one aluminum atom won’t have any effect on you, and people tend to have a few dozen milligrams in their bodies all the time. Not all vaccines have aluminum in them, and ones that do have it in such a teeny amount it has negligible effect on you.
As for mercury, hang on a sec …
Yes, this does make sense! That’s because Carrey, despite having a vast amount of information literally at his fingertips, doesn’t understand the difference between ethylmercury and methylmercury.
Methylmercury (with an M) is a form of mercury that is bioaccumulative—that is, it builds up in the body over time. People get it in their systems in a number of ways, including eating some fish.
Ethylmercury (with an E) does not bioaccumulate, and breaks down after a couple of weeks, and your body eliminates it. Thimerosal, which used to be used in many vaccines, breaks down into ethylmercury. This process is quite safe, but after a public outcry spurred by misinformation and confusion on these two forms of mercury, thimerosal was discontinued in most vaccines. It’s now used in very small doses only in some flu vaccines.
Also? It’s been shown, conclusively, that there is no connection between thimerosal and autism. None.
Yes, Mr. Carrey, you are anti-vax. You can’t pick and choose what to believe in and what not to, and then say you’re not anti-vaccine. This gambit was tried by Jenny McCarthy and by RFK Jr. It rings just as hollow with them as it does now. If you’re trying to scare people out of taking vaccines because of obviously and provably false information, then you’re an anti-vaxxer.
Saying in one breath that vaccines have done good but then in another attacking them and increasing fears of them based on nonsense puts [RFK Jr.] squarely in the anti-vax camp. It’s like saying that most UFO cases are just misidentified normal things, but the ones we haven’t identified are definitely alien spaceships that come here to stick probes in our various orifices. Acknowledging one aspect of reality and then claiming absurdities does not make you pro-science.
Speaking of which …
Here's a bit of free advice: Run, do not walk, away from comparing yourself to RFK Jr. That may not be the best line to take. For starters, he is indeed an anti-vaxxer. He’s also a conspiracy-monger, and, unfortunately, an influential one, since he does have political clout. And given that we can’t always trust our elected representatives when it comes to health issues, that makes him especially pernicious.
Jim Carrey can yell that he’s not anti-vax at the top of his lungs, but that doesn’t change the fact that he really, really is.
After his Twitter tirade Tuesday night, the replies started flowing in, and I was pleased to see just how many were against him. I guess Carrey didn’t learn the lesson from McCarthy that sometimes going on Twitter doesn’t generate quite the result you were hoping for.
In the end, though, SB-277 is now law, and if you live in California you have to vaccinate your children if you want them to attend public school, unless you have a valid medical reason for not doing so. I think that’s real progress.
I’m happy to discuss the ramifications of laws like this on the basis of parental rights—as a parent myself I have very strong feelings about those rights. I’m also something of a social libertarian, wanting most rights to lie with the people, and not the government. But I also know those rights must have limits, because people make mistakes and in some cases need to be regulated.
The health and welfare of the public certainly constitute one of those cases. So again, I thank Gov. Brown, and I hope many more states follow suit.
*Correction, July 1, 2015: This post originally misspelled Mos Eisley.