Contagion and the Conflict Between Religious Beliefs and Immunization

Steven Soderbergh's recent film Contagion is the most plausible experience of a global pandemic plague you're likely to see until the real thing strikes. Stark, beautiful in its own terrifying way, and all too believable, the story tracks the swift progress of a deadly airborne virus... from Hong Kong to Minneapolis... Tokyo to London... from a handful of peanuts to a credit card to the cough of strangers on a subway. Rarely does a film issue such an inescapable invitation to think, "It could happen. That could be us. What would I do?"

Perhaps because the movie had invaded my head, for several days I kept coming across stories in the news about contagious disease. And the conflict between religious beliefs and immunization. Nothing new here about the basics: All fifty states require some specific vaccinations for kids. Yet all of them grant exemptions for medical reasons - say, for a child with cancer. Almost all of them grant religious exemptions. And 20 states allow exemptions for personal, moral, or other beliefs.

Some parents still fear a link between vaccinations and autism, a possibility science has largely debunked. Some parents just want to be in charge of what's put into their children's bodies.

And some parents just don't trust science, period. So, you can see there are many loopholes. But now seven states are considering legislation to make it even easier for mothers and fathers to spare their children from vaccinations, especially on religious grounds.

In Oregon, according to a story by Jennifer Anderson in The Portland Tribune, the number of kindergartners with religious exemptions is up from 3.7 percent to 5.6 percent in just four years, and continuing to rise. This has public health officials clicking their calculators and keeping their eye on what's called "herd immunity." A certain number of any population group needs to have been vaccinated to maintain the ability of the whole population -- "the herd" -- to resist the spread of a disease. Ms. Anderson offers the example of what in my day was called "the German measles" -- rubella. All it takes are five unvaccinated kids in a class of 25 for the herd immunity to break down, creating an opportunity for the disease to spread to younger siblings and to other medically vulnerable people who can't be vaccinated. If you were traveling to Europe between 2009 and 2011, you may remember warnings about the huge outbreak of measles there -- brought on by a "failure to vaccinate susceptible populations."

Here in the U.S., several recent outbreaks of measles, have been traced to pockets of unvaccinated children in states that allow personal belief exemptions. The Reuters news service reports 13 confirmed cases of measles in central Indiana. Two of them were people who showed up for the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. Patriot and Giants fans back east have been alerted. So far, no news is good news.

But this is serious business, made more so by complacency. My generation remembers when measles killed. Killed at as many as 500 people a year before we started vaccinating against them in 1963. My wife and I both lost grandparents in the great flu pandemic of 1918 that killed as many as forty million globally. Our generation was also stalked by small pox, polio, and whooping cough before there were vaccinations. In a country where few remember those diseases, it's easy to think, "What's to worry?" But as the movie so forcefully and hauntingly reminds us, the earth is now flat. Seven billion people live on it, and our human herd moves on a conveyer belt of constant mobility, so that a virus can travel as swiftly as a voice from one cell phone to another. When and if a contagion strikes, we can't count on divine intervention to spare us. That's when you want a darn good scientist in a research lab. We'll need all the help we can get from knowledge and her offspring.

For all its many qualities, including some fine acting, Contagion was frozen out of the Oscars -- not a single nomination. In fact, none of my favorites were nominated. Nonetheless, let's go to the movies for some insights on our politics today, because when it comes to storytelling, Hollywood and Washington are co-dependents. Political conspiracies, skullduggery, and infighting have long provided solid plotlines for moviemakers. In turn, politicians try to embrace the values that movies depict as the noblest virtues of the American character: selfless courage, patriotism, sincerity and compassion. Both know that movie entertainment informs our image of what leaders should be but at the very same time capably and handily distracts us from certain grim truths.

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