My 12-Week-Old Baby Shouldn't Be at Risk of Measles. Anti-Vax Stories Mean She Is | Opinion

baby hospital
File photo. Baby in hospital iStock

Two weeks ago, Americans gathered over Easter dinners and Passover Seders to tell stories and pass on traditions. Last week measles cases reached a record high. The tables where we told stories of life and rebirth were the very places where some shared disease and perhaps death.

This terrible irony that first occurred to me when Donald Thea, Boston University Professor of Global Health, predicted the likely uptick at a World Immunization Week event we spoke at recently, but it was something others, including New York's mayor Bill de Blasio, had also worried about as the holidays approached.

This proximity of stories that guide our lives and very contagious germs that threaten them is striking to me as an English professor who studies the history of health and the mother of a twelve-week-old baby girl.

According to CDC recommendations, children do not normally get their first MMR shots for a full year, and, while breastmilk is believed to provide some protection, current immunization schedules leaves her vulnerable for another nine months. She should not be at risk of a disease that was declared eradicated in the US in 2000, but she is, and it is, at least in part, because of stories.

Vaccine hesitancy in the United States is, of course, largely tied to a discredited and widely reviled article by Andrew Wakefield who claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. It turned out Wakefield was guilty of deliberate fraud, which he perpetrated for his own financial gain. And yet, this myth has been remarkably difficult to dislodge, contrary to mountains of data that disprove it and the growing recognition of measles as a disease that is even more dangerous than we thought. One reason is that anti-vax and vaccine-hesitant communities have launched powerful narrative appeals to counter scientific fact, and it doesn't take much for them to put us all at risk.

In the face of a growing measles crisis, the medical community has begun to reckon with the fact that data—and even reasoned argument—are not alone enough to change these dangerous misconceptions.

We can force people to vaccinate, as de Blasio is doing in Williamsburg, but the broader question of how to bring people around remains. Emotional personal tales alleging harm from vaccines and weaponized social media campaigns have been very persuasive. From Jenny McCarthy's account of her son's supposed experience of vaccine-induced autism to the Facebook harassment of doctors spreading vaccine information, the forms of communication shared by anti-vax and vaccine-hesitant communities have been markedly different in shape, style, and tone than that of public health workers promoting vaccine awareness.

While public health workers share graphs and tables, those looking to combat immunization efforts take to Facebook and YouTube channels. The reason these dangerous campaigns work is not that anti-vaxxers are stupid; in fact, they're often well-educated. But we are often speaking past one another, using different ways of talking, different forms of evidence, different stories.

It's here that we would do well to think more about the stories we tell and how and why they work. If dispassionate accounts based in graphs are not encouraging enough moms and dads to take their kids to the doctor, maybe we could learn from the power of the emotional appeals of the anti-vax and vaccine-hesitant community.

If tables and charts don't sway opinions, maybe we need to think differently about how to use social media and organize our communities. In short, we understand our lives—and even our data—through the stories we tell about them, and we would do well to think more carefully about the shapes of these stories and how they move people. As an English professor, this is something that I spend much of my professional life thinking about, but now as a mother I am acutely aware that my child's health is at the mercy of these stories' effects.

One solution may, unfortunately, not be far off. If measles continues to spread on buses, trains, and planes, through celebrations, and over dinner tables, we may soon have the kinds of tragic and moving accounts that have fueled anti-vax arguments—heartbreaking stories that were until recently distant memories. I hope we can find better stories to safeguard our children before it comes to that.

Sari Altschuler is Assistant Professor of English and Founding Director of the Health, Humanities, and Society program at Northeastern University. She is author of The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States.

Views expressed in this article are the author's own.