Liar, Liar: Jim Carrey and the Misinformation About Vaccines and Autism
By Dan Summers
Corynebacterium diphtheriae, the infectious agent responsible for diphtheria, is a nasty little germ. Known once upon a time as the “strangling angel of children,” affected patients would develop a membrane that covered the airway, as well as significant irritation in the throat and surrounding tissue. Respiratory and circulatory collapse commonly followed, with resultant coma and death. Removal of the membrane would lead to profuse bleeding.
I graduated from medical school almost exactly ten years ago, and did my residency in pediatrics at NYU Medical Center in New York City. I have never seen a single case of diphtheria in my career, which is a statement that many pediatricians of my generation could probably echo. Indeed, I have never seen a single case of smallpox, polio, tetanus, measles or a handful of other once-common childhood illnesses, despite having been taught about all of them in medical school and being expected to know about them to pass my certification exams,. The pediatric wards of Bellevue Hospital, once full of children ill with epiglottitis and bacterial meningitis, were largely empty during my time there.
The reason for this gulf between my textbooks and my experience can be attributed to the various vaccines now commonly administered as part of a standard schedule in the United States. While very little in contemporary medical practice is totally free of risk or adverse effects, from the perspective of pediatric infectious disease the advent of vaccinations has been as close to an unalloyed good as is likely ever to occur. Diseases that once killed thousands of children a year are all but unheard of now.
It’s hard to argue with that kind of success.
Sadly, Jim Carrey has seen fit to try. It was with singular frustration that I read his recent missive in the Huffington Post, full of the usual “vaccines lead to autism” misinformation and pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo. What was most frustrating about the post was not so much that I think Mr. Carrey is wrong (though I think that he is very, very wrong), but that he is dishonest.
Of particular frustration was this paragraph:
I’ve also heard it said that no evidence of a link between vaccines and autism has ever been found. That statement is only true for the CDC, the AAP and the vaccine makers who’ve been ignoring mountains of scientific information and testimony. There’s no evidence of the Lincoln Memorial if you look the other way and refuse to turn around. But if you care to look, it’s really quite impressive. For a sample of vaccine injury evidence go to www.generationrescue.org/lincolnmemorial.html
For my purposes, I will leave aside the innuendo that Carrey casts at the CDC and the AAP. (Full disclosure: I, like most pediatricians, am a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, or AAP.) While I think his statement is appalling and belies the invaluable work these two organizations do (such as coordinating a public health response to the current swine flu outbreak), I want to focus on the link Carrey provides. One would be forgiven if one assumed from what he writes that Carrey is himself familiar with the information it provides, which is a conclusion I would question.
When he first posted his jeremiad, the link redirected one to a miscellaneous page for Generation Rescue , a prominent “vaccines and autism” organization on whose board Carrey apparently sits. No evidence of any kind was readily available, but I eventually found the “Autism Science ” page, which was supposedly full of peer-reviewed science establishing a connection between the current immunization schedule and autism. It would be an understatement to say that the science available for review does not actually validate this viewpoint.
Of the hundreds of references, many of which are simply citations and none of which are more than an abstract, easily less than 5% explore the purported relationship between vaccines and autism. A great many of the references describe abstruse molecular biology, and are all but inaccessible to any but the most trained people in the field. (It strains credulity to imagine that a highly-paid movie comedian could make heads or tails of them.) Much of the information presented, such as its section on “Aluminum Toxicity ” has nothing to do with autism at all.
Particularly poignant is the section on “Autism and Rubella Virus ”, as there may actually be a link between congenital rubella and autism in some cases, and vaccines are responsible for the near eradication of the former. Should enough people refuse the MMR vaccine for their children and a certain threshold be missed, it is likely we will become reacquainted with this diagnosis.
Since the original publication of the post; however, the link has been updated and leads to a new destination. The new page has a few graphs and yet more innuendo. Unsurprisingly, what it lacks to any real degree is science. It would be tedious to go through it section by section (particularly as I have already done so elsewhere), but the closest that the page comes to actual science was a survey commissioned by Generation Rescue in 2007.
Beyond the questions one might ask about how effective a one-time survey is as an epidemiological tool or about the potential for bias in a survey commissioned and analyzed by an organization whose raison d’etre is to create the appearance of a phenomenon the study is meant to investigate, there is the sad fact that the study was not reviewed by a disinterested party or submitted for discussion in a neutral scientific forum. As such, any scientist of merit would dismiss its findings out of hand. If it wishes to be taken seriously, Generation Rescue will have to submit to a peer-review process for its studies, just like the CDC and the AAP.
There are layers of tragedy to all of this, beyond what it demonstrates about the appalling standards for publication (or lack thereof) at the Huffington Post. It is not simply that a credulous public will hear about this malarkey from Oprah or People magazine, and will believe it. And it is not simply that they will take misinformation peddled by a silver screen joker of waning popularity more seriously than what they are told by their children’s doctors.
The real tragedy here is that Mr. Carrey has egregiously chosen to pretend to know important information that he clearly does not. The “science” his organization provides, and which he presents as being so clearly on his side, does little or nothing to actually support his claim. Indeed, the vast majority of the peer-reviewed science provided by Generation Rescue is wholly unrelated to the connection between autism and vaccinations, a question that has been asked and answered as far as the legitimate medical community is concerned.
Carrey wrote his post and appears as a spokesperson for Generation Rescue while affecting the posture of an informed and enlightened ambassador for truth. Indeed, he presents himself as an honest and concerned counter to the “pro-vaccine” agenda. But, upon review of the science actually available on Generation Rescue’s own “Autism Science” page, it becomes immediately apparent that this is a sham. Unless I am greatly mistaken, there was no discussion of the long chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase enzyme in “Dumb and Dumber,” nor has Mr. Carrey publicly demonstrated a facility for describing cerebellar expression of nitric oxide synthase. Carey simply expects us to trust that the evidence supports his claim, that pediatricians and public health experts are in thrall to the vaccine industry, all the while blithely assuming that nobody will bother to sift through the science his organization has thrown at the wall like so much spaghetti. The simple (if time-consuming) act of checking what he says makes his dishonest, uninformed grandstanding apparent.
To carry over Mr. Carrey’s own analogy, it is as though he were pontificating about the Lincoln Memorial, all the while gesturing toward the Great Wall of China.