A recent report out of California informs us that a Whooping Cough epidemic continues to grow in the state, with more than 3.400 reported cases so far this year, already topping 2013’s totals.
The health department reports that two-thirds of the people hospitalized have been children four months or younger, and two infant deaths have been reported. Infants, who are too young to be immunized, are most vulnerable to the highly infectious bacterial disease.
“Preventing severe disease and death in infants is our highest priority,” said Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the health department, told NBC. “We urge all pregnant women to get vaccinated. We also urge parents to vaccinate infants as soon as possible.”
This comes on the heels of an announcement from the federal government that measles cases in the United States have reached a 20-year-high, largely because of the growing resistance to vaccinations.
This is one of those highly unfortunate, and actually rather rare, scenarios in which the truly tragic intersects with the truly preventable. The death of these children is the very essence of tragedy, evidence of intrinsic unfairness of life. And yet, these children didn’t die because of insurmountable forces like food scarcity or war, but instead because a growing minority of parents decided to ditch the very obvious scientific proof about the necessity of vaccinations for their children, all at the expense of everyone’s else’s’ children.
The way immunizations work is that they are dependent on most members of a community to be protected from diseases in order to reduce the likelihood of an outbreak. This way those who are not eligible for the vaccines, including infants, pregnant women or others with compromised immune systems, are protected from the disease. This is called “community immunity” or “herd immunity” and Vaccines.gov has a great inforgraph explaining it.
Okay, so why can’t we convince people vaccinate then, despite all the evidence for it and the devastating outcome of the anti-vaxxer movement? A recent study by political science professor Brendan Nyhan found that it is nearly impossible to convince anti-vaxxers to change their mind through education. He sent a mix of leaflets from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other official groups to anti-vaxxers, including one stating that there is no evidence that vaccinations cause autism, another about the dangers of the diseases that vaccinations immunize us from, another featuring photographs of children who had suffered from the diseases, and a dramatic story about an infant who almost died of measles. None of them worked.
Nyhan’s conclusion: “Current public health communications about vaccines may not be effective. For some parents, they may actually increase misperceptions or reduce vaccination intention. Attempts to increase concerns about communicable diseases or correct false claims about vaccines may be especially likely to be counterproductive. More study of pro-vaccine messaging is needed.”
He told the New Yorker that he thinks the key is to find a non-ideological message, one that promotes vaccinations without refuting claims made by anti-vaxxers, though he worries it might be too late for this.
Others are more optimistic about the power of fear to reform the “mushy middle of vaccine-hesitant people who are separate from the hardcore anti-vaxxers,”, as Jessica Grose writes over at Slate. She says pediatricians still have a lot of sway, and are key in the fight to reverse the anti-vaccination phenomenon.
I think the difficulty of convincing anti-vaxxers of the facts is connected to a larger cultural force at play here, one that privileges children and individualistic attitudes. As Lisa Miller both directly and indirectly pointed out in her New York Magazine article about whether or not ethical parenting is possible, parents these days operate under the belief that they need to do whatever it takes to help their children succeed. They do this with little concern about how it affects other kids or contributes to the escalating unfairness and inequality growing around us.
Anti-vaxxers are not so different. They are so concerned about what could (even though it won’t) happen to their kid, that they ignore the larger implications for the communities they live in. Jewish parents are no different, and a growing number of them, inside the Orthodox community and without, are foregoing vaccinations as well.
Listen, I’m a mother, I get the instinct to want to help your kid get ahead, even at the expense of others. The fact is, we all have those selfish instincts, so the trick is finding some a way, a system bigger than our individual lives, to help us resist them. Religion, as it happens, can function this way, whether as a system of beliefs, a community or both.
No wonder then that Judaism, which is very concerned with the sanctity of life, can be interpreted as being definitively pro-vaccine. (I’ve written about this before, and rarely recycle old content as such, but it bears repeating in this context.) According to Rabbi Goldie Miligram, Judaism “across the board, within every denomination, aspires to life for those born into this world.” Jewish bioethics has long interpreted Deuteronomy 4:15, “Greatly guard your souls,” as a commandment to protect ourselves from disease. Reb Nachman of Breslov, who died in 1810 of tuberculosis before there was a vaccine for it, wrote: “One must be very very careful about the health of children…One must inoculate every baby against smallpox before one-fourth (3 months) of the year, because if not, it is like spilling blood (murder).”
I don’t expect contemporary parents to hop on the vaccination wagon because of what Rabbi Nachman said two hundred years ago. But I do hope that we can find inspiration from somewhere, be it in our tradition or something else bigger than ourselves and our families, to start thinking more like a community again.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.