Statement: “Yes, a wave of twelve children with measles in San Diego is a troubling thing. But, there are more than 20,000 children in San Diego with autism!” Jenny McCarthy, the actress and anti-vaccine activist, wrote in a column published by the Huffington Post on April 28.
Analysis: McCarthy is the leading spokesperson for activists who say vaccines can be dangerous and cause autism in children. The medical community says this contention is wrong and hazardous to the health of kids.
In her Huffington Post column, McCarthy criticized an episode of PBS’s “Frontline” about the debate over vaccines in the United States.
Frontline’s piece also lacked any sense of proportion. Yes, a wave of twelve children with measles in San Diego is a troubling thing. But, there are more than 20,000 children in San Diego with autism! 20,000 vs. 12? When you really look at the numbers, you realize how huge our autism problem really is.
McCarthy was referring to an outbreak of measles in 2008. None of the infected kids had been vaccinated, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported at the time, in some cases because the parents refused vaccination.
But how McCarthy deduced the total number of autistic children in San Diego exaggerated estimates based on research and population data.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the average national rate of autism — “autism spectrum disorders” — is one in every 110 children.
McCarthy took the entire population of San Diego County, around 3 million people, and applied the CDC’s autism rate, said J.B. Handley, a board member of McCarthy’s organization, Generation Rescue. That put the number around 27,000 and the article rounded down.
So McCarthy’s calculation was based on the county’s entire population, not just children. But her statement specifically asserted “20,000 children.”
It’s also unclear from reading McCarthy’s column whether she was referring to the entire county or just the city of San Diego, so we decided to look at numbers for both.
These would be more accurate estimates than McCarthy’s based on the CDC research.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent population survey estimates the city of San Diego has about 282,000 children under the age of 18. If the CDC’s autism rate is applied to that population, about 2,600 kids would be autistic. (That’s more than 10 times less than McCarthy’s estimate.)
The U.S. Census Bureau puts the countywide population for children around 740,000. Using the CDC’s rate again, the number of autistic children would be 6,700 kids. (That’s four times less than McCarthy’s estimate.)
We also checked with Cherri Cary, president of the San Diego County chapter of the Autism Society of America, who said no firm estimates on local autism rates are available and added that the CDC estimate is considered the most reliable, although the rate may be higher for younger children.
Handley acknowledged that McCarthy’s article incorrectly referred to “children” not “people” and said it was calculated for the county as a whole, not the city. Still, he wrote, “Same point: versus 12 cases of measles, it’s disproportionate.”
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