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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Vaccinating Against McCarthyism

By Phil Plait

Today (Feb. 5 in Australia) is Dana McCafferyâs birthday. She wouldâve been 4 years old today. Howeverâtragically, horrificallyâshe died in her parentsâ arms five weeks after she was born. She succumbed to pertussis, whooping cough.

Dana must have contracted the disease from someone with whom she came in contact. Itâs unknown who it was, but it could have been anyone. Her parents, Toni and David, live in New South Wales, Australia, in a region where vaccination rates are low. Pertussis infections there are more common, and Dana was one of the unfortunate ones who got the disease. On March 9, 2009, it killed her.

Unfortunately, it wasnât well known in that area that people need to get a booster shot to aid their immunity to the disease. A booster is recommended every 10 years or so, especially if youâre around newborns, infants too young to get immunized. They rely on herd immunityâthe idea that if enough people in a community are immunized, the viruses and bacteria that cause sickness donât have enough hosts to persistâfor safety. But that information isn't commonly known among the public.

The area where the McCafferys live is also a stronghold of anti-vaccination group that calls itself the Australian Vaccination Network, a name that is as Orwellian as anything Iâve ever seen. They routinely spread misinformation about vaccinations: Their longtime leader Meryl Dorey has publicly stated vaccines are linked to autism (which they most definitely are not), that they have dangerous levels of toxins in them (they do not), and has linked them to all sorts of dangers and fears. Dorey even had the gall to state on that no one dies of pertussis anymore.

I beg to differ. The McCafferys do as well.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when I heard that Dorey was stepping down from the leadership of AVN. However, the man taking her place has just as tenuous grip on reality as she does. No doubt the AVN will go on as a voice of nonsense when it comes to health safety.

Fighting anti-vaxxers is critical. The misinformation they spread is incredibly dangerous. First, because itâs simply wrong, almost to a letter. Second, because it spreads fear, and then parents donât vaccinate their kids or get booster shots themselves. And when that happens, herd immunity drops, and when herd immunity drops, kids start getting infected. Some die. This is no joke: It happens in Australia, it happens in the United Kingdom, it happens here in the United States. My own home of Boulder, Colo., had a big outbreak last year of pertussis, and one baby came very close to death.

We need to get the word out: Vaccines save lives. And we also need to fight the forces of ignorance when we can. An excellent example came up just this weekend: I was stunned to learn that the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundationâa charity that does excellent work supporting cancer survivors in eastern Ontarioâhad hired actor Jenny McCarthy to headline a fundraising event.

McCarthy is the most famous face of the anti-vax movement. More than perhaps anyone else she has mainstreamed the incredibly dangerous claims of the anti-vaxxers, saying vaccines gave her son autism and that she cured him using what are known to be noneffective treatments. She decries vaccines as toxic, yet boasts about getting injected with Botox, which in reality contains the single most deadly protein toxin known (botulinin). What she says is phenomenally dangerous, and I consider her claims to be a substantial threat to public health.

The idea of her working with a cancer clinic to raise money is galling, to say the least. When the Ottawa foundation announced it, there was a very quick backlash on Twitter and in the media. Not long after, they announced she was no longer headlining and was being replaced by fitness guru Tommy Europe.

A lot of people were happy, but Iâm still not entirely satisfied. In an interview, the foundation president Linda Eagen said the backlash was why they reconsidered McCarthy, but on their website, no reason was given for McCarthy no longer attending the fundraiserâthey never say she was fired, or dropped, just âreplaced.â McCarthy herself on Twitter said she couldnât do it due to a scheduling conflictâsuspicious timing to say the least. I asked the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation for their official word on this, and they directed me to their site and the bland press release about McCarthy being replaced.

Let me be clear: Iâm glad the Ottawa foundation wonât have her coming to the fundraiser, I support them in their decision, and I very much support the wonderful work they do to help cancer survivors. Hiring McCarthy in the first place was a mistake, and it looks like when they learned about it, they rectified it. I just wish they had taken a firmer stance on their website, since it is where they are directing inquiries.

And Iâm happy anytime someone like McCarthy doesnât get a chance to spew her nonsense. This is not a First Amendment issue, Iâll note. For one, weâre talking Canada, not the United States. For another, this is not the government trying to suppress free speech. This is the voice of the people in action: A group hired her, and a lot of people let them know they were very, very unhappy with that decision. Thatâs how free speech is supposed to work.

So while Iâm glad McCarthy wonât get a chance to be associated with a legitimate group doing good work, Iâm unhappy that the real reasons she wonât arenât being made clear. Any group basing work on actual medical knowledge, on real medicine, needs to stand firm against people who chip away at the foundation of reality.

If you want more information on vaccines and safety, I suggest these links:

Toni and David McCaffery have a Facebook page for Dana to help raise awareness about the cause and prevention of whooping cough. I urge you to look, give it a âlike,â and help spread the word. Diseases kill, but they donât have to. They depend on our ignorance, but ignorance, like so many other things, can be cured.

And please: Talk to your doctor, and if he or she recommends it, get your vaccinations. The life you save may not be your own, but that of a baby in your life too young to be protected directly.

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