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The Vaccination Nation

It’s only a pinprick, a momentary burst of pain for a tiny human being who doesn’t know what is happening and therefore cries with such abandon that even a veteran parent cringes at the sight. Vaccinating an infant can be frightening, and not just for the baby. It is essentially an act of faith, based on an intuitive belief that short-term pain will bring long-term protection. Until the latest measles outbreak became a public health crisis and a political punching bag, it was a routine that most of us in America followed without question, without thinking how lucky we are that the diseases plaguing prior generations had become a distant memory.

Now, a backlash fueled by fear, ignorance, narcissism and privilege has re-introduced a potentially fatal disease, measles, that public health officials thought had been eliminated 15 years ago. An odd alliance of libertarians who reflexively rebel at any sort of government mandate and impressionable liberals who practice what Jon Stewart calls “mindful stupidity” — not to mention those ultra-Orthodox Jews who blindly follow their rabbis’ ridiculous dictates — are demonstrating how badly frayed the American civic consensus has become.

But here’s what gives us hope: the backlash to the backlash. It’s been spontaneous, fierce, filling Facebook feeds with indignation and even nudging a few spineless politicians back from their pandering perches. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is forced to be quiet after his recent mumbling about “freedom to choose” and Sen. Rand Paul takes to showing off his latest vaccination on Twitter, there’s evidence that the backlash is exacting a political price.

In an America that seems to have lost its sense of communal responsibility, the vaccination debate may have pushed us to the breaking point. Other major public health issues pitting the rights of the individual against the needs of the community can feel distant until they swing into our consciousnesses and wallop us in the gut or the pocketbook, only to recede quickly, replaced by our more selfish impulses.

So after the massacre of children at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, any reasonable national action to limit the rights of gun owners rose and fell on the crest of public emotions, fading once the victims were buried and the horror forgotten. After Hurricane Sandy, the public debate about preventing widespread destruction from swelling seas and warming temperatures brought about by global climate change was eclipsed by the science deniers and the worries about economic consequences.

When it comes to public health, we have dangerously short attention spans and limited perspectives. Except, perhaps, with regards to our childrens’ well-being. The very reasons that extremists reject vaccinations is the very reason the majority of Americans so adamantly rejects the rejecters.

Because it’s not only about my child. Or your child. It’s about all of our children. It’s about the risks we assume together, based on the incontrovertible science that had banished measles, crushed polio, all but eliminated diphtheria and made us the envy of the developing world.

The backlash to the backlash is saying: I’ve done my bit to protect my child. You need to do the same, even if you are worried or uncomfortable, even if you still hold fast to the thoroughly debunked link of vaccines and autism, even if you are right to be concerned about an over-medicalized culture. Otherwise, the system doesn’t work, the immunity is punctured, the unity dissolves.

Rabbi Edward Reichman, a medical ethicist at Yeshiva University, points out that rabbinic decisors even permit Jews to violate the Sabbath if that is the only time an urgent vaccination can be had, so essential is it to protect public health. That fundamental Jewish impulse is behind the anti-anti-vaccinators’ impassioned cry. May it win the day.

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