The news that a talk show has hired a new host doesn't typically cause a commotion.
But the newest host of ABC's The View, Jenny McCarthy, isn't just any actress.
In recent years, McCarthy has become as well-known for her claims that vaccines cause autism as for her roles as a late-night host on VH1 and a 1993 Playboy model.
McCarthy, a best-selling author, has blamed vaccines for causing her son, Evan, to develop autism, both during an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show and in books such as Healing and Preventing Autism: A Complete Guide.
About one in four adults said they were familiar with McCarthy's views about vaccines, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup poll taken in 2008. Of those adults, 40% said her claims made them more likely to question vaccine safety.
Now people on both sides of the issue are talking. Many vaccine skeptics and some parents of autistic children hail McCarthy as a hero.
But public health groups say they fear that McCarthy, 40, will use her new job to spread dangerous misinformation. Two dozen studies have failed to find any link between autism and vaccines. The advocacy group Autism Speaks also has said there is "no connection" between immunizations and the condition.
"Jenny McCarthy's unfounded claims about the dangers of vaccines has been one of the greatest impediments to efforts to vaccinate children in recent decades," says Amy Pisani, the executive director of Every Child by Two, an international vaccination group co-founded by former first lady Rosalynn Carter. The group wrote to The View producer Barbara Walters last week seeking to keep McCarthy off the show.
"Children have died due to this misinformation, and those who perpetuate lies for personal gain ought to be held responsible," Pisani says.
In its announcement, ABC did not mention whether McCarthy, who also writes an advice column for The Chicago Sun-Times, will address vaccines or other medical issues. McCarthy has appeared on the show 17 times. ABC says the actress officially starts Sept. 9.
"All the hosts speak openly on a variety of topics," says Lauri Hogan, publicity director for ABC Entertainment Group.
"We are delighted that Jenny will be joining us as a permanent co-host on The View starting in September," Walters said in a statement. "Jenny brings us intelligence as well as warmth and humor. She can be serious and outrageous. She has connected with our audience and offers a fresh point of view. Jenny will be a great addition to the show as we usher in an exciting new chapter for The View.''
In a statement, McCarthy said joining The View was a life-long dream.
"I'm beyond thrilled to be joining Barbara and the other amazing women at the table," she said. "I look forward to helping make hot topics a little bit hotter and showing my mom that my interrupting skills have finally paid off."
McCarthy's fans rallied to her defense on social media.
"She is an entertainer, but so what? She has a story, just like the other hosts of The View, so let her tell hers and don't bash her," says Kathy Sheehy, who, as the mother of a 16-year-old son with autism, admires McCarthy. "Debate and open discussion are good. Give parents the benefit of the doubt and let them decide what is best for their babies. This is a scary time to be a parent in this country, and everyone has a right to hear all sides."
After reading McCarthy's books, Meghan Dawson decided to take her two autistic children to Jerry Kartzinel, who co-wrote a book with McCarthy and treated the actress' son.
"Her books offer real insight into ways to help our autistic children," says Dawson, of Irvine, Calif., who says her children, ages 3 and 4½, have made great progress after using a number of approaches, including vitamins and applied behavioral analysis, an intensive form of therapy. "Her story of 'curing' her son's autism is a ray of hope in a very dark and lonely place."
McCarthy's critics say they're afraid that giving her a network TV job could give her more credibility. Rahul Parikh, a pediatrician with Kaiser-Permanente in Walnut Creek, Calif., says he's especially uneasy about seeing McCarthy on a show "that caters to moms."
About 10% of parents now skip or delay recommended vaccines because of safety concerns. Public health officials have blamed this trend for recent outbreaks of measles and whooping cough.
"ABC has reached a new low when it comes to bringing on a 'controversial' host to improve ratings," says Austin pediatrician Ari Brown, author of Baby 411. Like many pediatricians, Brown says she devotes considerable time to debunking vaccine myths and reassuring parents about the importance of vaccines. "While controversy might sell, it also might turn viewers away."
Seattle pediatrician Wendy Sue Swanson says it could take decades to make up for lost ground on vaccines. "In the medical community, we'll work to undo myths around vaccine safety for the rest of our lives, in part because of Ms. McCarthy."