V is for Vaccination Village

herd immunityI live in Marin County, California—ground zero of the vaccination wars that erupted after this winter’s measles outbreak in Disneyland. Marin County is one of the most affluent, best-educated, and progressive enclaves in America. It also has some of the highest rates of personal belief exemptions for standard childhood vaccinations. Left-wing parents here who do not want to vaccinate their children cry “Freedom!” just as loudly as their right-wing counterparts. Some have quipped that Marin County is the place where the Tea Party and the Green Tea Party come together.

I support SB277, a bill currently making its way through California’s Senate that would eliminate all but medical exemptions for vaccinations for school-aged children whose parents wish to enroll them in public schools.

Yet I hesitate to wade into the battleground, knowing how firmly held beliefs become even more entrenched when disputed, even in the face of scientific evidence. Although a false claim linking autism to vaccines has been thoroughly debunked, fear persists. I do not know how to approach parents who fervently defend their right to choose what is best for their children when I know it is not best—for their kids, or for anyone else’s. Maybe if my friend Mark Paul’s essay, “My Polio, My Mother’s Choice,” were required reading, it would be more persuasive than my impatient incredulity.

These days, though, I fear that perhaps we’re suffering from something even worse than the easily preventable outbreak of disease. The vaccination wars speak to deeper problems in our country: distrust in the government, both earned and unearned; too many who turn away from science; and, most gravely, the abandonment of the village. The near-universal practice of vaccination confers herd immunity, protecting those who are too young, too old, or too immuno-compromised to be vaccinated. But if enough people seek “freedom”—freedom from their responsibility to the herd–where does that leave us? We are too much in it for ourselves now, no longer interested in contributing to the common good. This worrisome trend affects many issues beyond vaccination

It does, indeed, takes a village. But what if people want only the rights, and not the responsibilities, of being a villager?