STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Renee's on jury duty. I'm Steve Inskeep. Today in "Your Health," scientific studies show that childhood vaccines are remarkably safe, but a lot of parents do not agree. One reason is the number of celebrities promoting the idea that vaccines can cause autism. Here's actress Jenny McCarthy at a rally in Washington, D.C.

(Soundbite of rally)

Ms. JENNY MCCARTHY (Actress): And the ingredients like the freaking mercury, the ether, the aluminum, the antifreeze need to be removed immediately after we saw the devastating effects it took on our children.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

INSKEEP: Jenny McCarthy says vaccines contributed to her son's autism. And she's repeated that claim on "Oprah" and on "Larry King Live" and in books. Now the pro-vaccine forces are fighting back with a celebrity of their own. NPR's Jon Hamilton has the story.

JON HAMILTON: Actress Amanda Peet is a celebrity mom who says parents should vaccinate their children.

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Ms. AMANDA PEET (Actress): Vaccines like those against measles and influenza are not only a good idea, they could save our daughter's life. Take the time to get the facts. Vaccines save lives.

HAMILTON: Peet says when she was pregnant a couple of years ago, she heard all the scare stories from her friends in Hollywood.

Ms. PEET: You shouldn't vaccinate. You should never vaccinate. And haven't you heard about this danger or that danger. And so I called my sister...

HAMILTON: Who happens to be a doctor married to another doctor. Pretty soon Peet was talking to one of the country's leading experts on vaccines, Paul Offit.

Dr. PAUL OFFIT (Chief of Infectious Diseases, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia): She really kept calling me, and we spent, frankly, hours on the phone so that she could make sure she understood the science as well as possible.

HAMILTON: Offit is head of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He also helped invent a vaccine against rotavirus, an intestinal bug that has killed millions of children in developing nations. Offit says the facts are clear. Sixteen major studies have found no connection between autism and vaccines. And history shows that when people stop getting vaccinated, deadly diseases come roaring back. The more Peet learned, the more concerned she got about the risks from not vaccinating children.

Ms. PEET: My worry is that parents who don't vaccinate, they don't ask themselves the question, you know, what would happen if everyone did what I'm doing?

Dr. OFFIT: It became clear that she was angry, that she has a young child, she lives in California with celebrities, and certainly the culture among California young mothers is - certainly in the celebrity world - is that, you know, vaccines may be a bad thing. And she felt her child was at risk.

HAMILTON: And Offit says celebrity fears about vaccines have been amplified by coverage in the media.

Dr. OFFIT: They always carry it as a controversy. You know, the controversial MMR vaccine or controversy surrounding thimerosal in vaccines, when, in fact, it's not a controversy anymore.

HAMILTON: Offit and Peet decided to work together to counter the fears and the fear-mongering. He's written a book called "Autism's False Prophets," which dissects the claims of the anti-vaccine movement. She's been doing TV spots, magazine articles, and talk show appearances. But Peet constantly reminds people not to see her as an expert.

Ms. PEET: If you're interested in nuclear fusion, you should consult a physicist. And if you get on a plane, you want a pilot who's trained for thousands of hours on how to fly a plane.

HAMILTON: So if you want scientific information, she says, go to a scientist, not a celebrity. And Offit says the dangers of not vaccinating are becoming obvious.

Dr. OFFIT: In the first half of this year, we have had a measles epidemic that is larger than anything we've seen in more than 10 years. A hundred and thirty-five people, mostly children, have gotten measles. About 15 of those children have been hospitalized when measles virus infected their lungs. And most of those children's parents chose not to vaccinate. They chose not to vaccinate them because they feared that the MMR vaccine would cause autism when clearly it doesn't.

HAMILTON: So far these outbreaks have been relatively small. But Peet says parents who don't vaccinate their children need to understand why things haven't been worse.

Ms. PEET: The reason our kids are safe is because most of us are vaccinating and this creates a barricade, you know, against disease. So in effect we're sheltering their children with our vaccinated children.

HAMILTON: Widespread vaccination also protects infants until they're old enough to get all their shots. And Offit says there is another large group that needs protection.

Dr. OFFIT: There are 500,000 people in the United States who can't be vaccinated. They can't be vaccinated because they're on cancer chemotherapy, or they've had a bone marrow transplant, or a solid organ transplant, or they're receiving steroids because they have severe asthma. They depend on those around them being vaccinated...

HAMILTON: To reduce the chance of exposure to diseases like measles. For someone with a compromised immune system, measles is often fatal. Offit says that's the sort of thing celebrities like Jenny McCarthy don't mention when they talk about vaccines. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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