I’m ticked off this week. No getting around it; I am. But I’m also sad and frustrated.
As of April 11th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there have been 555 confirmed cases of measles so far this year. That’s more than in all of 2018 (372) and the highest number since 2014 (667). Measles was declared “eliminated” in the U.S. in 2000, but that means the disease isn’t present all the time (or “endemic”), not that it doesn’t exist at all.
Travelers from countries where measles is still endemic bring cases into the U.S. every year. Usually, there are enough people who’ve been vaccinated around them that no one else catches the disease, or a few do, and then no one else does. This is “herd immunity” at work.
But there are states and municipalities around the country where people can claim all sorts of reasons for not wanting to get vaccinated, or get their kids vaccinated. As a result, not only are they now vulnerable to this disease—and a lot of others—but so are the people around them.
Some of these people cite religious beliefs. Some of them live in relatively small, tightly knit communities like the Orthodox Jews in part of New York City. Others are scattered throughout their cities like, say, Christian Scientists. Or they live in isolated rural areas. I’m not happy about them for reasons I’ll make clear later.
I’m much more concerned about the ordinary but science-ignorant citizens who’ve been suckered by the anti-vaccine movement into believing emotion-laden allegations that vaccines cause all sorts of conditions, the most famous, or infamous, being autism. Never mind that in the case of autism, the scientist whose study started the whole thing retracted his research long ago, agreeing with his critics that he’d made some pretty serious errors in his work and conclusions.
But the virus of fear has been released into the wild.
Medical professionals and other scientists have tried to convince anti-vaxxers with scientific data and statistical assurances. That’s worked about as well with them as climate scientists arguing the facts with climate change deniers.
In other words, it hasn’t. And it won’t.
Fear is a powerful emotion, while facts have no emotional component. Fear will win that fight every time.
Anti-vaxxers have been making another argument, that it’s their “right” to decide whether to have their kids vaccinated or not.
So what about the right of other kids to be healthy and their parents free of the fear that their kids will come down with some real and potentially terrible disease? Apparently, that’s not important.
“I care about my rights, but yours are irrelevant” is the attitude.
I can think of a couple of other long-running arguments in our society that echo the same themes. Bet you can too.
For some time, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks has been advocating for a renewed sense of community in America, here, for example. His idea is that when people have compassion for others and are interested in and concerned about their well-being, they bring their own selves and their own rights into balance with those of other people. Those “others” become real human beings again.
That, it seems to me, is what is failing to happen here. The anti-vaxxers and the others who refuse to get their kids vaccinated against preventable diseases fail to care for the other children around their kids and about their health and future. They don’t seem to recognize that there’s a connection between their own children and those other kids, even when the children are all in the same classroom or playground together. Their own kids—and their own decisions—exist in a kind of bubble.
Except, of course, that they don’t.
Sadly, it’s natural in a situation like this, to respond to fear-driven emotion with fear-driven emotion. But that’s only going to drive those fear-driven anti-vaxxer parents deeper into their shells of denial. And then the problem just gets worse.
Somehow, a sense of community, of connectedness has to be snuck into these folks’ worlds. A community different than the anti-vax community they’re already in, that us-against-the-world community. One that reconnects them to the wider world, that leads them to accept that they have a moral responsibility not only to themselves and their own families but to all of the people around them.
I’m not sure where that change begins, or how, although I’m pretty sure it does not begin with a conversation about vaccination. The first vaccination has to be against fear.