Note: Earlier today, Jenny McCarthy was officially named as a new co-host of the popular daytime talk show The View. As many people have already noted, this is an extremely unfortunate move on ABC’s part: It’s giving the network’s imprimatur to someone who has worked, methodically and relentlessly, to undermine public health.
In (dis)honor of McCarthy’s new perch, I’ve decided to post a chapter of my book The Panic Virus titled “Jenny McCarthy’s Mommy Instinct” on the blog. Since it’s well over 5,000 words, I broke it up; this part final installment is about the dangers in following McCarthy’s advice. You can go back and read Part 1 (“The birth of a star and an embrace of ‘Crystal Children“), Part 2 (“Jenny brings her anti-vaccine views to Oprah,” and Part 3 (“Jenny legitimizes the scientific fringe“).
James Laidler, a medical doctor who teaches in the biology department at Portland State University, has firsthand experience with the lure of this approach. About a year after his oldest son was diagnosed with autism, Laidler’s wife returned home from an autism conference flush with stories about how seemingly intractable cases of the disease had been “cured.” While initially skeptical, Laidler agreed there was no harm in seeing if their son responded to some of the vitamins and supplements that had been recommended. Soon after that, the couple removed gluten and casein from their son’s diet. The next thing they tried was hormone therapy. “Some of it worked—for a while—and that just spurred us to try the next therapy on the horizon,” Laidler wrote in an essay about his experiences. When the Laidlers’ second son started showing autistic-like symptoms, they decided to treat him as well. It was around this time that Laidler went with his wife to an autism conference and saw firsthand what had so impressed her. “[I] was dazzled and amazed,” he wrote. “There were more treatments for autism than I could ever hope to try on my son, and every one of them had passionate promoters claiming that it had cured at least one autistic child.”
This was how the family found themselves headed to Disneyland with forty pounds of preapproved food for their two boys, “lest a molecule of gluten or casein catapult them back to where we had begun.” That’s exactly what they were convinced would happen when, during an unobserved moment, their younger son ate a waffle he’d snatched off a table. “We watched with horror and awaited the dramatic deterioration of his condition that the ‘experts’ told us would inevitably occur,” Laidler wrote. “The results were astounding—absolutely nothing happened.” Over the next several months, the Laidlers stopped every treatment except for occupational and speech therapy. Not only did their sons not deteriorate; they “continued to improve at the same rate as before—or faster. Our bank balance improved, and the circles under our eyes started to fade.” During those years in which he and his wife had been religious devotees of various biomedical treatments, Laidler wrote, they’d just been “chasing our tails, increasing this and decreasing that in response to every change in his behavior—and all the while his ups and downs had just been random fluctuation.”
In some ways, the Laidlers were lucky: The cost of trying every new treatment that comes along can be more than time, money, and dashed hopes, a fact that is tragically illustrated by chelation, the favored cure for ridding the body of “environmental” toxins. A large part of chelation’s appeal among parents lies with the way it tackles the putative problem head-on: It results in the literal expulsion— or “excretion,” to use the phrase favored by its proponents—of the hypothesized poisons from autistic children’s bodies. Unfortunately, as can be expected from a chemical cleansing process originally designed during World War I as a treatment for mustard gas exposure, chelation comes with a significant amount of risk. When Liz Birt’s son, Matthew, was chelated, his condition seemed to worsen, and in one instance, chelation preceded a grand mal seizure. Colten Snyder, whose family’s suit claiming the MMR vaccine had caused his autism was one of the Vaccine Court’s initial Omnibus Autism Proceeding test cases, had an even worse experience: After his second round of chelation, a nurse wrote in his medical records that he went “berserk.” He also became aggressive and noncompliant, became more prone to tantrums, and exhibited increased repetitive behaviors. After his third round of treatment, he was brought to a medical facility due to severe back pain, which is one of the procedure’s known side effects.
Then there’s the case of Abubakar Nadama, who moved with his mother to Pennsylvania from Batheaston, England, because chelation is not permitted for the treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders in the U.K. On August 23, 2005, Abubakar went into massive cardiac arrest and died while receiving intravenous chelation therapy from a sixty-eight-year-old ear, nose, and throat specialist named Roy Kerry. In a 2009 lecture titled “Starting the Biomedical Treatment Journey,” Lisa Ackerman told parents they couldn’t let Abubakar’s death dissuade them. “I’m going to not be politically correct again,” she said. “There’s a child that passed away from chelation and it was extraordinarily sad and tragic. . . . The guy that gave the chelator to that little boy gave the wrong dose and the wrong type, and the kid had a heart attack because the doctor erred.”
That didn’t mean, Ackerman said, that parents should be “afraid”; after all, they were going to need to “step it up” if they wanted their kids to get better. Ackerman failed to mention that less than a year after his patient died, “the guy that gave the chelator” was recognized as a DAN!–approved clinician, a designation which is obtained by attending a thirteen-hour seminar conducted by the Autism Research Institute, signing a loyalty oath to the organization’s principles, and paying an annual fee of $250. (In order to maintain certification, doctors must attend a continuing education seminar every two years.)
Another of Ackerman’s recommendations that morning was to buy some of the “thousands” of supplements marketed to parents of autistic children. Her personal favorites were those produced by a company called Kirkman Labs. “Go get their handy-dandy resource guide called ‘The Roadmap.’ That will tell you what supplements do what,” she said. “I’m a big fan of Kirkman’s because they’ve been around forever and their products are tried and true.” Less than nine months later, Kirkman did a voluntary recall of seven of their products because they contained high levels of antimony, a chemical element used in flameproofing, enamels, and electronics—and one that some anti-vaccine activists had recently been proposing as a potential cause of autism.